In ‘The Water Dancer,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Debut Novel, a Slave Tries to Control His Special Powers

Over the past decade, Ta-Nehisi Coates has emerged as an important public intellectual and perhaps America’s most incisive thinker about race. In his three books of nonfiction — “The Beautiful Struggle,” “Between the World and Me” and “We Were Eight Years in Power” — he seemed to be almost single-handedly waking the consciousness of his country. With his left hand, Coates also writes comic books, including a Black Panther series for Marvel. When word leaked that he was writing a novel, one had to wonder: What would that be like?

The most surprising thing about “The Water Dancer” may be its unambiguous narrative ambition. This isn’t a typical first novel, if by “typical first novel” we mean a minor-chord and semi-autobiographical nibbling expedition around the margins of a life. “The Water Dancer” is a jeroboam of a book, a crowd-pleasing exercise in breakneck and often occult storytelling that tonally resembles the work of Stephen King as much as it does the work of Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and the touchstone African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Set largely on a tobacco plantation in Virginia during the middle of the 19th century, this novel is about one black man’s experience of slavery and the Underground Railroad, and it is flecked with forms of wonder-working that push at the boundaries of what we still seem to be calling magical realism. Coates writes as if he’s thrown his readers into a carriage and is hurling them through the woods. The ride is bracing, even if one sometimes misses the grainy and intense intellection of his nonfiction writing. In his earlier books each paragraph felt like a bouillon cube that could be used to brew six other essays. Here the effect is more diffuse, and something intangible goes missing.

The narrator of “The Water Dancer” is Hiram Walker, a sensitive young black man born into bondage. His mother was sold at auction, and he clings to his scant memories of her. In “Between the World and Me,” which took the form of a letter to his son, Coates observed: “Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.” One of his achievements in this novel is to closely underscore the human particularity of a range of enslaved men and women.

[ This is one of our most anticipated titles of September. See the full list. ]

Hiram is called to work up at the plantation house as a servant to his owner’s only son (whom we discover is Hiram’s brother). Coates traces Hiram’s tentative explorations of that house. For his white father, “books were fashion, signatures of pedigree and status, which marked him off from the low whites of the county with their dirt-floor hovels and paltry homesteads of corn and wheat. But what did it mean to find me, a slave, dreaming amid those books?”

We learn early that Hiram has a special power: a photographic memory. “By the time I was 5,” he says, “I could, having only heard it once, holler out a work song, its calls and responses, and to that add my own improvisations, all to the wide-eyed delight of my elders.” This novel brims with the oldest hymns and chants. Up at the plantation house, Hiram is forced to perform memory tricks for the amusement of guests.

In terms of Hiram’s special faculties, perfect memory isn’t the half of it. Like Prospero, he has brother issues and paranormal abilities. He has the occasional power of “conduction,” the ability to vanish from one place and appear in another, sometimes with others in tow. This power is strongly linked to rivers, in a manner that recalls the river in Macondo in the first paragraph of Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

A lot happens in “The Water Dancer.” There are love stories. There are intimate betrayals. Hiram, on the lam or on missions for the Underground Railroad, is captured more than once. He gets to Philadelphia and experiences life as a free man. Coates inserts allusions with an eyedropper. Hiram has an intense aesthetic experience in Philadelphia while eating gingerbread. Some readers will recall that Booker T. Washington wrote: “If I ever got free, the height of my ambition would be reached if I could get to the point where I could secure and eat ginger-cakes in the way that I saw those ladies doing.”

Coates doesn’t linger on the gruesome realities of slavery. There are no extended scenes of abuse. His novel increasingly begins to bend toward the motifs and impulses of the comic book and superhero world. “A power was within me,” Hiram says, “but with no thought of how to access it or control it, I was lost.” He seeks a mentor. She is called Moses. Others know her by the name Harriet Tubman, who in this novel is not merely the abolitionist who made daring missions to rescue enslaved people but a woman known to some as “the living master of Conduction.”

Hiram and Tubman go for a walk in Philadelphia. Tubman begins to glow a “pale spectral green” and together they hover above the Delaware River. Tubman teaches him that a great ability is within him, that “memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.” This book is quite literally about the power of stories. Hiram will perhaps, with practice, be able to beam enslaved men and women from South to North. Just in case, Tubman also hands him a pistol.

As in Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” in which there was a literal underground railroad, there is a tear here in the fabric of reality. Coates’s pulling at that tear is less deadpan than Whitehead’s, and more constant. The most urgent sections of this ambitious novel are, for this reader, its more grounded ones. Speaking about the woman Hiram loves but has lost, one character evokes “a whole country looking up wondering for their fathers and sons, for their mothers and daughters, cousins, nephews, friends, lovers.” He describes slave owners at elegant parties, how “the drinking would start and the festive spirit would darken, and all the masks of fashion and breeding would fall away, until the oozing, pocked face of Elm County would lie revealed.” Coates evokes a sense that an abyss might open at any moment below his characters’ feet.

Coates’s novel sometimes feels as if it were written quickly, and it has the virtues and defects of that apparent spontaneity. Where his nonfiction runs narrow and quite deep, “The Water Dancer” mostly runs wide and fairly shallow. It’s more interested in movement than in the intensities of sustained perception.

Hiram comes to see conduction as “a relay of feeling, assembled from moments so striking that they become real as stone and steel, real as an iron cat roaring down the tracks.” At its best moments, this novel’s steel wheels hum.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

The Water Dancer
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
403 pages. One World. $28.

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