Feast Day of the Cannibals is the sixth in the American Novels series by Norman Lock at Bellevue Literary Press. It tells the story of Shelby Ross, a formerly wealthy man whose been bankrupted by a depression. He’s hired to work at New York City’s customs house under the supervision of Herman Melville. Like most people at the time, Ross had no idea Melville was a great author, his books were long forgotten and dismissed.

Two other colleagues are important to the story. First, there is the gentle Martin Finch with whom Ross feels an instant rapport. They develop a friendship and even plan to go west to San Francisco together. Then there is Gibbs, a disagreeable and threatening man who repeatedly insinuates that Ross’ friendship with Finch is unnatural. However, his enmity seems rooted in envy more than homophobia.

Feast Day of the Cannibals is told in a one-sided conversation with Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge. He is a friend from Ross’ youth and they shared a giddy ice-skating adventure on the freshly frozen Hudson. Roebling is an invalid, his wife carrying out the management for him. He sits in his home overlooking the bridge while Ross tells him the story of what happened to him with Melville, Finch, and Gibbs. Roebling does not utter a word. The story is somewhat of a confessional and apologia for Ross’ actions, which he feels driven to, perhaps by Moby Dick, but more honestly by rage at what Gibbs has done.

There seem to be many similarities with today’s cultural environment and the past in terms of the flagrant corruption of this new Gilded Age where the rich get richer and everyone else is feasted upon by the wealthy. There is also the exploration of internalized homophobia. Gibbs draws Ross into a homosexual experience and persecutes both Finch and Ross with his insinuations about their friendship, driving both Finch and Ross to drastic actions.

Ross meets many other historical people in his story including Mark Twain and President Grant who is bankrupt himself and hoping to make enough with his memoirs to support his wife. He also meets up with Rev. Winter from the last book, “The Wreckage of Eden,” a sad, but fitting, encounter.

Feast Day of the Cannibals is a grim book. It was interesting to see Melville through the eyes of his subordinate and to get an insight into the world of the docks during the Gilded Age. I thought the writing was incredibly descriptive and captivating even though the story left me frustrated since Ross could have simply refused Gibb’s company, but sort of drifted into difficulty again and again.

In some ways, I feel I failed as a reader with this book. While I could enjoy the prose and the historical detail, it just never clicked, so to speak. Perhaps it was the conceit of telling the story to Roebling with no reaction or interaction. It created a distance that kept the book from gelling.

I received an ARC of Feast Day of the Cannibals from the publisher through a LibraryThing drawing. It will be released on July 16th.

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