Lock, Norman. “Feast Day of the Cannibals”, Bellevue Literary Press, 2019.
The Sixth Book in the American Novels Series
Set in New York City between 1873–79, we meet Shelby Ross, a merchant ruined by the depression of who gets a job as a New York City Custom House appraiser under inspector Herman Melville. Melville, now bitter and forgotten, had written the novel, “Moby Dick”. While working on the docks, Ross becomes friendly with a genial young man while at the same time becoming the enemy of one who attempts to destroy their friendship by insinuating that Ross and the young man are involved in an unnatural relationship. Ross is telling this story to his childhood friend, Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the almost-completed Brooklyn Bridge. Other characters include Ulysses S. Grant, dying in a brownstone on the Upper East Side; Samuel Clemens, who will publish Grant’s Memoirs; and Thomas Edison, at the beginning of electrifying the city. While this is the story of Ross, it is also the story of the transformation of America during an unsettling time and we get important questions about sexuality.
Author Norman Lock has a remarkable eye for historical detail and the talent of writing beautiful prose. He examines both societal and personal questions of desire and repression, both personal and societal while giving the reader a look at old New York and the conflicts that the narrator experiences. Obsession and violence are the result of repression and sublimation as we read about the ugly side of the Gilded Age.
Shelby Ross visits his old friend Washington Robling, who is incapacitated and tells him his sad story including his fall from fortune forcing him to seek work, and the events that led to his imprisonment. Having lost his business in the depression, Ross found employment at the Customs House, working under Herman Melville, a bitter, failed novelist and a younger man who pursues a friendship, while another co-worker, a sinister older man, harasses them as suspect homosexuals.
Ross reads Melville’s forgotten books, and Moby Dick influences him in dark ways. He plays into the hands of his nemesis, until his rage drives him to commit a crime of passion.“This is a dark novel of evil and hatred, of failed dreams, the bitterness of life’s unjustness, and the many ways humans are all cannibals at heart.” We see that while age was gilded, it was sordidly so.