A shoemaker; one whose calling it is to defend the understandings of men from naked contact with the substance of things: a very useful vocation, and which, spite of all the wiseacres may prophesy, will hardly go out of fashion so long as rocks are hard and flints will gall.

Argh, Melville’s Confidence-Man is so good.

There are many things I love about this sentence: that amazing flip of understanding, the monosyllabic sing-song rhythm at the end, the hilarious straw-man argument that there are people out there who hate shoes. The book is weirdly structured, but it’s brimming with ominous symbolism and tangled ethics. It’s also got a fantastic poker face—no, seriously, who is this confidence man?—as well as an equally good ending.

The worst part, though, is the knowledge that this was Melville’s final novel. Not long after The Confidence-Man, too, failed to recapture the nation’s attention like his first books did, Melville quit fiction (he wrote some poetry) and went off to quietly work in a customs office for the next two decades.

If Melville wrote another dozen novels as ambitious and imperfect as this one, I’d read them all. He is my absolute favourite.

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