“In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
The Sot-Weed Factor hooked me from the first sentence.
John Barth's novel was inspired by a poem of the same name written by Ebenezer Cooke in 1708. The novel itself draws on official archives of Maryland, but its historical account is animated by a whirlpool of imagination.
The plot pivots and twirls with intrigue, counter-intrigue, masquerades, farce and melodrama, and adventure--lots of adventure. The characters are many, but primarily Ebenezer Cooke, his twin sister, Anna, and Henry Burlingame, a complex man of many guises.
The dialogue alone I would award 5 stars--formal, yet hysterically funny, insightful, and often bawdy--I admit to having dialogue envy.
This is a long novel, about 500K words, so it easily suits lots of themes:
The existentialist notions of action, choice, and value.
The lawlessness of early America with its connection to European political conspiracies complicated by a disregard for morality juxtaposition with desires for upper class wealth and prestige.
Coming of age and the development of a coherent sense of self.
Sex and society. (Women's roles, prostitution, rape, incest, buddy love, lust....)
I could go on.
For criticisms, I have 2. First, extensive text of a journal is produced on the page in all manner of glorious misspellings, which made for difficult reading, which amounted to me skimming. Second, the ending epilogues wrapped everything up with a nice little bow, which was anti-climatic and devoid of all the wonderful character and dialogue that made the novel so enjoyable.
That's it. Grand read. I think you'd enjoy it.