My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a virtuoso performance. John Barth is a born storyteller, and The Sot-Weed Factor makes full use of his talents. There are tales within tales, here, and they’re all told with a seductive sense of humor.
The story follows a woefully innocent (you could say naive) young poet on his travels from the Old Country to the New. He meets a vast number of characters on his journey, many of whom seek to take advantage of his innocence (or take his life). His companion on his journey is a political agent (spy) who is deeply involved with the affairs of the Maryland government and its enemies. The scope of this novel, as you can see, is astonishing.
Many professional critics make note of how Barth satirizes the historical novel, here, but satire implies a target: something that must be taken down. I think, rather, that Barth is just winking at the historical novel. He knows how these novels work; he knows their cliches. So he incorporates those elements and transcends them so that they no-longer seem cliche or “played out.”
The Sot-Weed Factor is not serious literature. It’s fun. If you come to it looking for a great story and a good number of laughs and head-shakes, you’ll enjoy it.