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A Civil War-era underworld and its evil genius

Canaan's Tongue
By John Wray
Knopf, 352 pp., $25

John Wray is a talented young writer, a recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, and his first novel, ''The Right Hand of Sleep," set in Austria after the Second World War, received much acclaim. Then he explored the world of his mother's European forebears; now he turns to the heritage of his American father, whose ancestors fought in the Civil War.

However, Wray is not interested in the usual cast of characters of that great conflict, but rather in the cruel and wily John Murel, an infamous trader in slaves and an accomplished preacher who could sway large audiences and was called ''the Redeemer." Wray got the idea from a passage in Mark Twain's ''Life on the Mississippi," which he uses as an epigraph for Part 1:

''He appears to have been a most dextrous and consummate villain. [His gang] would tell a negro that if he would run away from his master, and allow them to sell him, he should receive a portion of the money paid for him, and that upon his return to them a second time they would send him to a free State, where he would be safe.

''The poor wretches complied with this request, hoping to obtain money and freedom; they would be sold to another master; and run away again, to their employers; sometimes they would be sold in this manner three or four times, until they had realized three or four thousand dollars by them; but as, after this, there was fear of detection, the usual custom was to get rid of the only witness that could be produced against them, which was the negro himself, by murdering him, and throwing his body into the Mississippi."

In his memoir Twain explains the workings of Murel's gang, revealing that ''more than a thousand" confederates were sworn to help support the gang, and tells about a man named Stewart who penetrated its workings and then got a confession from Murel, which was, strangely, ignored. In an interview Wray confirms that ''the operation had grown so profitable, and so pervasive, that when it was finally exposed and the list of its shareholders published, it contained so many respected names (from both the South and the North) that the report was dismissed out of hand."

It is easy to understand why Wray was fascinated by this material and its parallels to what is happening between corporations and government today. And he has created some interesting characters: Thaddeus Morelle, based on John Murel; Virgil Ball, his most pliable protege; Clementine Gilchrist, a whore who initiates the naïve Ball and even bears his child; and others, both white and mulatto, who make up the elite inner circle of this gang.

The book begins in 1863 at Geburah Plantation, La., where the gang is hiding out, and the writing on the first page is superb and filled with urgency:

''A body has been found. Virgil Ball has found it. Virgil Ball, the most skittish of them all, the most inquisitive, the most tender. He hovers above the body like a bucket above a well. Three other men are with him. The men look at Virgil, then down at his feet, where the body lies stiff and equitable and naked. They draw closer and squint. It is a particular body, known to them by sight. They are each of them killers and well used to unpleasantness but the sight makes them curiously restless.

''A question has begun forming in their minds."

Will they be found by a Union scout or the Pinkertons who were set on their trail or by some angry slave or slaveholder? We read on, propelled by a series of monologues where the writing is often brilliant and dominated by the voice of Ball, who is a half-Jew with a deformed eye, as he is initiated into the elite. I suppose he is the one we are supposed to root for, and there are times when he and Goodman Harvey and Oliver Delamere gain the reader's sympathy, but there really is no one in this novel to love. Rather than creating character, Wray depicts violence, often so revolting that some of us may feel that we've been taken, and that this novel, being touted as having great ''emotional power" by a young literary star, is simply the indulgence of a writer too young to curb his fascination with brutality. On the other hand, the writing is strong, and there may be people who will love this kind of exploration into the underworld of 19th-century America.

Once Morelle disappears from the book, though, the narrative falls apart, relying too much on flashbacks and the coming of an ''avenging angel" and all kinds of mumbo jumbo from the cabala and its belief in the sephiroth, or the emanations of light by which God is revealed to man. In the second half are more monologues, childlike drawings (also included earlier in the book), an explanation of the title, a court scene that reads like a parody of Faulkner, and more killings of the members of the elite until the final denouement, when the reader learns who the real villain is.

What I felt upon closing ''Canaan's Tongue" was regret. Here is a writer who loves words even more than he loves cruelty. I can only hope he will find the right subject for his next novel, that he will eschew gratuitous violence, that he will be grabbed by characters he can fully develop and reward us with a fine, less cluttered narrative: the very book his large talent has the ability to create.

Roberta Silman's latest novel is ''Beginning the World Again: A Novel of Los Alamos."

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