Investigator Outsider: Exploring the Off-Kilter World of Robert Freeman Wexler’s The Silverberg Business

Investigator Outsider: Exploring the Off-Kilter World of Robert Freeman Wexler’s The Silverberg Business

Melissa Benton Barker

Under Review:
The Silverberg Business. Robert Freeman Wexler. Small Beer Press, August 2022.

Sometime in 1888, a private investigator, Shannon, returns home to coastal Texas for what he assumes will be a quick visit. He is soon called upon to find a missing man named Nathan Silverberg. Silverberg is a New York businessman at the center of a land deal gone wrong—a plan to relocate a community of displaced Romanian Jews to Texas. The local Jewish community has raised money for the cause, only to discover the money has disappeared, along with the land deal and Silverberg. Suspecting that Silverberg has been abducted in a scheme to profit from the charitable donations, Galveston’s rabbi enlists Shannon to solve the case, and to restore faith in humanity for those who donated to relocate the refugees. 

The bygone Texas rendered by Robert Freeman Wexler in The Silverberg Business still has a frontier ambience. It’s populated by those who have come from elsewhere to seek a new start: not only cowboys, but also the formerly enslaved and a sizable Jewish community. Shannon’s chosen anglicized name masks his own Jewish identity, a choice he makes to keep himself as inconspicuous as possible in service of his profession, which requires him to observe by blending in. Thus Shannon finds himself on a mission that feels both righteous and personal: “American Jews—we know how easy our lives are compared to the people in Eastern Europe. Those with money to help give willingly. And those who prey upon that generosity must be stopped.”

Early on, the novel makes it clear that it is concerned with what it means to be a protector or a predator. Shannon sets off on a journey that takes him through the expected locations of late nineteenth century Texas, such as saloons and whorehouses, but also to places that are as wildly imagined as they are skillfully rendered. Part Western, part detective novel, part surreal adventure, The Silverberg Business is truly unclassifiable.

The novel is written in the ever-observant, hard-boiled, first-person voice of an experienced and worldly detective. Early on, Shannon reveals himself to be a narrator who is consistently philosophical and at times even tender, and Wexler wields simple, descriptive language to create a compelling, multi-layered plot that frequently veers into unexpected territory. The narrative works at many levels to consider what it means to live with an outsider status, and the straightforward, often cinematic prose belies the novel’s forays into the surreal.

 As Shannon chases a mysterious poker-playing swindler—whose presence is portended by a stench described as reminiscent of a “dead ocean”—he finds himself spending a considerable amount of his time playing an interminable life-or-death game of poker with a group of “skull-heads.” Mysterious, ominous beings who exist in a time warp of a parallel universe, these characters are both otherworldly and surprisingly familiar, apparently doomed to a never-ending cycle of poker, alcohol, and soulless dancing.

Part Western, part detective novel, part surreal adventure, The Silverberg Business is truly unclassifiable.

One of the key questions of the novel becomes whether Shannon is doomed to join in their game of repetition, or whether he can take the reins and escape them. What he accomplishes here depends on whether he is able to see beyond the surface and find the human in beings that seem to live outside the definition of humanity. Such unexpected turns are one of the delights of the novel, and set it apart from standard Western and detective novels. Another pleasure is the philosophical and existential questions that underpin the plot—questions about fate and determinism, about good and evil, about what it means to have be an outsider in a fledgling society, about what it means to find one’s place, and to belong. 

Despite Shannon’s attempts to blend in (by changing his name, or by accessing a persona he refers to as “Irish Shannon”) his status as a Jew in post-Civil War Texas remains central to the narrative, just as the mystery at the foreground—the disappearance of Silverberg—centers the vulnerability of outsiders. Early in the novel, Shannon notes: 

No doubt some people see the secret marks on my forehead, but most take me as a regular American. I don’t feel like one; I doubt Jews will ever feel like they belong with the regular Americans.

As I read, I couldn’t help but reflect upon these themes as both unfortunately timeless and unfortunately prescient, particularly in the contemporary United States. Not unlike the novel’s Texas, the States too often lurch into dangerous, unsettled territory around questions such as how (or if) we should care for the vulnerable, who is welcome, who is an outsider, who belongs. The novel is faithful to its Western/detective genre even as it departs them in favor of far stranger tropes, and it stays faithful to these central themes without swinging into didacticism. Wexler gives us archetypal characters such as cowboys, stoic poker players, and a steely-eyed villain. He also gives us a wild range of the unclassifiable: the skull-heads, as well as ominous sand mounds with their “insatiable maws,” a protective eagle named Solo, Zlateh the magical goat, and an amnesiac German bartender/aeronaut. Some of the characters who initially appear most frightening may turn out to have more going on under the surface—even heroism. Like the world it inhabits, the novel continually veers off-kilter, and it kept me pleasantly unbalanced as a reader. 

By subverting expectations in both genre and character, Wexler’s writing continually asked me to look closely, beyond initial expectations and surface observations—much like a detective must. This genre-defying novel works at many levels to consider what it means to live as an outsider in a landscape that holds a dark mirror to our contemporary era. And it’s not only deeply-layered: it’s a page-turner, a wild ride, and an immensely enjoyable read.  The Silverberg Business is a mystery that kept me thinking about its deeper questions and haunting images long after the case was closed.

Melissa Benton Barker’s stories and essays appear in Atticus Review, Atlas and AliceLunch Ticket, and Best Small Fictions. She is the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT.

Transparency Statement

This article was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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