The Pequod Review:
The Sot-Weed Factor is one of John Barth’s best books — a big, complex, postmodern novel with elements of satire, allegory, history, fantasy, picaresque and even burlesque. The first paragraph gives a sense of Barth’s imaginative and playful style:
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, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
What follows is the fictional recreation of the life of Ebenezer Cooke, an Englishman who has been commissioned by the 3rd Baron Baltimore to write an epic poem celebrating Maryland. Cooke is given the title Poet Laureate of Maryland, and journeys across the Atlantic, only to find himself horrified and scandalized at every turn.
The book is flawed: its plot is convoluted, and the overall story has a detached and self-consciously meta-fictional style. It too often feels like a giant put-on by Barth, a parody of a novel rather than an authentic novel itself. What saves The Sot-Weed Factor from itself is Barth’s propulsive narrative and imaginative prose. Here for example is one of the lewd characters Cooke meets, Mary Mungummory, the Travelling Whore o’ Dorset:
D’ye grasp it, Master Poet? I’d been a whore for twenty-eight years, all told. Some twenty-thousand times I had been swived – give or take a thousand – and by almost that many different men; there was no sort or size of man I had not known, so I’d have sworn, nor any carnal deed I was not master of. I had been forced too many times to count, by paupers and poltroons, and more than once myself had been employed to rape young men.
If you like the excerpts above, you will probably be able to get past The Sot-Weed Factor's pretentiousness. If not, then it is likely be a mostly unpleasant reading experience.