Monday, September 24, 2012


The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1960, 756 pp

So there I was, excitedly embarking on my reading list for 1960, expecting all things more modern. I checked The Sot-Weed Factor out of the library and hit a few barriers.

First off was the title. Sometimes I go around for years with a tantalizing title in my mind but without any conception of what the book is about. For example, The View From Pompey's Head, a 1954 bestseller by Hamilton Basso. I'd picked it up at a going-out-of-business sale at a local used bookstore, thinking it must be about ancient Rome and Pompey's ideas. Ha! It was about a New York lawyer who returned to his sleepy South Carolina hometown and got embroiled in racism.

I don't remember now what I thought The Sot-Weed Factor was about except that with John Barth as the author, who knew anyway. Turns out sot-weed was the name for tobacco in colonial American days and a factor was a colonial agent who took care of business in the colonies for the owner, who was usually back in England.

It took me almost two weeks to read this tome of satirical historical fiction. Frustrating? Yes, I normally read three books a week. Boring? Never. I did read the revised edition from 1967 which is purported to be 50 pages shorter than the original. Another 50 pages might have done me in. (I tried downloading an iBook of the original but it had so many typos I went back to the book, which weighed 4 pounds. I was already suffering from a pinched nerve, so I read under the influence of large doses of ibuprofin.)

Anyway, Maryland, 1600s, starring Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin. Catholics vs Protestants, white man vs Negro slave vs Native American (called "salvages," Geraldine Brooks in Caleb's Crossing was not the first to resurrect that term.) Wild, lawless pioneers, more whores than tobacco plants, more plot twists than whores. All written in a sort of Old English patois.

Clearly not a book for everyone, but hey, I have read two thirds of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy and I do enjoy history, especially historical fiction laced with irony and pathos. Someday I hope to read Don Quixote but if I never get to it, I have read The Sot-Weed Factor

Now I know that our fine country has ever been made up of criminals and dreamers and whores.

(The Sot-Weed Factor is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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