Wednesday 21 September 2022

Review: Anthony Adverse: The Other Bronze Boy by Hervey Allen

 In Volume One, Anthony was born and dumped in a convent, there he grew into a curious and intelligent boy who unknowingly became the ward of his grandfather, a rich merchant. He had sexual encounters, for better or worse and he had a constant struggle between his inner and outer selves. At the end, Anthony is about to set off on his first voyage, a trip to Cuba to settle a debt with a slaving company.

Volume Two: The Other Bronze Boy

Like the first, the second volume is episodic but the episodes are tighter, faster-paced and more action packed. Part of this is because Anthony is now an adult but also because he is put in situations where he has to act independently and really test his character.

Unable to sail in an official capacity, Anthony must become the first mate on a commercial ship. The most convenient is the Wampanoag, captained by Elisha Jorham and his wife. At first it seems like she’s going to be the obstruction, she’s strictly religious and stands on her dignity as ‘a Putnam’ but it’s Elisha who’s the liability. 

Years before, their three year old daughter wandered off and slipped into some mill machinery and was ground up. Since then, the couple have been wracked by guilt which Elisha drowns in drink. He’s particularly fond of ‘dog’s nose’, a mixture of wine, porter and port (which is nowadays more often a mix of stout and gin). This means Anthony has to step up a little, as the captain is frequently too drunk to navigate and Genoa to Cuba is quite a distance. There’s also the crew’s belief that the baby comes onto the ship as a ghost. 

As a result, this section reads as an almost self-contained ghost story, and to make it creepier, it’s aboard a ship that may or may not be going in the right direction. Allen again uses his skill for the eye-catching and strange, having part of the cargo of the ship being saints strapped into spare bunks. 

When the Wampanoag finally reaches Cuba, Anthony meets up with Carlo Cibo, he’s a semi-retired agent of Bonnyfeather’s and lives a well-fed, well-rested, generally luxurious life surrounded by his many naked children. (It’s odd, how often naked children are mentioned in these books, I think they represent innocence but not all are handled innocently - Cibo’s are though). The biggest problem he has in life is chafing, which he solves with a smooth, silk sash which ‘let’s one fat chop pass another’. 

This section slows to the more leisurely pace of parts of the first book. Anthony must make a good impression on the right people and put together a team which will allow him to claim back the money owed to Bonnyfeather. To that end, he falls in love (yet again), gains a servant and buys a new suit, which ushers in his new self and the new nineteenth century - no more breeches. For the most part, this part of the book is enjoyable for the likeable character of Carlo, who’s ‘mammalian philosophy’ of physical indulgence is paired with his opposite, Father François who is a purely spiritual figure.

For complicated reasons, Anthony has to board the slave ship Ariostatica, legally claim it as his for the length of a voyage and use it to ship slaves and use those profits to pay the debt the slaving company owes to his. Complications on this voyage include a captain who resents him, a crew who distrust him and Father François, who is being exiled from Cuba and has yellow fever. They are also being followed by a hammerhead shark who’s after at least one of them. 

The scenes in Father François’s sickbed are interesting enough, describing the progress of the disease and, in his fever, telling parts of his life. He was a nobleman who became a parish priest, he gave last confessions on the guillotine and also saw some of the events before Anthony’s birth. There’s also a strangely poetic paragraph about the sick man’s ‘fundament gusts’.

More interesting is the story of the captain of the ship, Don Ramon, and his lover El Pollo. The reader is first introduced to them rapidly dressing when Anthony boards the ship. El Pollo is described as being a typical prostitute, showing the captain’s laxity and louche nature, one fully backed up by his spinelessness and apparent deviousness. As if to back up the captain’s deviousness, it is then revealed that El Pollo is a young man, making the ‘disgusting’ captain gay. Then the book tries to humanise the captain, saying that El Pollo is not really his slave or lover, but obsession, and that El Pollo really owns him. Then the crew decide the young man is the reason for hitting a calm and sacrifice El Pollo to the hammerhead shark. The Captain, for all his obsession, is not the least bit bothered and what’s more, the sacrifice works and the ship keeps moving. It was interesting to have a book from the 1930s represent a gay relationship but it was also interesting to see how they followed similar ‘Hay’s Code’-esque conventions, with queer coding as a short hand for weakly, connivingly, evil and to kill off the gay, a trope we’re only growing out of now.

When they reach Africa, Anthony discovers the company’s head has died and there’s a tense gunfight on the ship as it’s being piloted up the river to the company headquarters. There’s death, destruction, another dog murder and the use of random items for grapeshot, decades before it was used in Pirates of the Caribbean.

When the smoke clears, it’s three years later and we are introduced to a new Anthony. He’s now the other bronze boy, sun-tanned but also stiff and unsmiling. He’s a huge success, having claimed the debt and launched on his own successful career as a slaver. He’s callous, referring to people as ‘product’ and encouraging good food and treatment to them because it drives up the price at the other end. He’s built his own dream home and is trying to build a paradise on the backs of others. To those around him, he’s the ‘Master of Gallegos’, a firm and unreadable man who conducts business fairly but strictly. Father François has tried to serve as his conscious, but is ignored by Anthony who wants to be a man of doing and a man of body - in the symbols set up in the first book, a bronze statue and not the reflection in the water. 

It’s interesting, because the strain of being a slaver and a man of action is obviously wearing him down. Although there is more action in this book, a number of gunfights, storms, almost-mutiny, Anthony has the supreme luck of finding exactly the objects and people he needs to withstand any external conflict. It’s the internal conflicts that really injure him and we see Anthony as low as he has been, despite being more successful than ever. 

It’s a bad dose of malaria that brings him back to himself, by stripping off the stiff-bronze self and restoring his more fluid and feeling being. It’s too late to save Father François though, who has been crucified by a witch doctor who saw him as a rival. A chastened but energised Anthony boards the Unicorn, captained by Bittern (who has fond memories of Faith’s sexy chair trick) and back to a Genoa which no longer has Bonnyfeather in it, as he died when Anthony was away.

Volume two is a far more exciting book than volume one but there are still the elements of philosophy with the divide in Anthony between his physical and spiritual selves. The descriptions of the slave trade are frank, delivered in outdated language and reflecting debunked opinions. It’s interesting that Allen only uses the N word in dialogue but never as narrator, maybe it’s becoming a line to not cross even then. Ultimately, Anthony does learn that slavery is bad and rejects it, but he does so as part of his rejection of purely bodily living and he gives the slave business to someone else, so it carries on. More insidious is the character of Ferdinand, the mixed-race chief factor, who seems a decent person at first but is actually a cruel monster - and the explicit explanation is that his seeming decency is his white side and his actual cruelty his black blood. However, it is possible to disagree with a book and enjoy much of it and this section of Anthony’s story was more gripping than the first, though less charming.

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