Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Devil and Daniel Silverman

I don't keep up with contemporary literary fiction as I used to. But then, I don't keep up with contemporary anything anymore, even in areas of professional as well as personal interest. Even as a former rock critic I gave up on following popular music in the early 90s, just after those great albums by Sting (the first three solos), Paul Simon (Rhythm of the Saints, etc.), Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson's "Mr. Heartbreak." The last great singles I can remember were around then, too. For awhile I dutifully followed the music of the artists I'd admired most, from George Harrison and Paul McCartney to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor and the aforementioned. By the mid 90s I didn't recognize half the top ten. By the end of the decade, it was all as foreign to me as the "Wax to Watch" on KQV was to my parents when I was 15.

Ditto for movies. The video store is a violent blaring blur. I don't go to the movie theatre with much enthusiasm anymore. I mostly feel I'm being conned. How many cops (or supercops) and robbers (or supervillains) movies and TV shows am I condemned to watch in this lifetime? Isn't there something else to do drama or comedy about?

Literary fiction is a bit different, though not really. There's the charged fog of hype to deal with. And there's so much of it, so little time left. Part of it I'm sure is that I am not part of any community that has or follows enthusiasms in new novels and writers (for in fact it was always impossible to keep up with everything.) I started my own explorations, first of Latin American writers, then of contemporary American Indian fictions, which was very rewarding. And I'd catch on to a more or less mainstream novelist once in awhile with great enthusiasm. Some of those have waned (David Lodge, for instance) but others have joined a personal pantheon whose new work I try to follow: Pynchon, DeLillo (who I've been reading since his first novel; I think my name's still on a blurb on the paperback of his third), Jim Harrison, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, a few others.

But I'm falling behind even in that. Richard Powers is literally writing novels faster than I can read them. In some ways it's because my horizons broadened: I listened to more classical and jazz and world music, explored directors from all over the world in depth on video, and read classic fictions I'd faked my way through in school. But now it's probably just the sound of the winged chariot, and a general discouragement. What does it matter anymore?

Which is a long way (which is my way) of saying that I probably wouldn't have picked up The Devil and Daniel Silverman (Leapfrog Press) if I hadn't been conducting an email correspondence with the author, Theodore Roszak. All his work that I knew was non-fiction. I vaguely remember seeing one novel, "Pontifex," a long time ago, but I assumed that was the one indulgence a celebrated non-fiction author used to be permitted by publishers in a different age. Turns out this is his fifth novel, and judging by its merits, I've been missing something.

The subtitle/blurb is "A Wickedly Funny Novel about an Outraged Liberal Trapped in a Fundamentalist Bible College." With the novel's title, it doesn't have to add "outraged Jewish Liberal." So in this "high concept" (which is mogolspeak for "obvious cliché") era in which the trailer is the movie, I'm expecting a lot of Jim Carrey fish-out-of-water scenes, although involving a relatively exotic fish. (Insert your own Jewish joke here.)

Well, the only part of this I want to give away is that this novel is a lot better than that. Daniel Silverman (who is gay as well as Jewish and liberal) is a more subtle character, more individualized, who finds himself forced to confront some transcendent issues, even if he'd rather not. Without spoiling the story, I can say I was impressed by how he changes within the main action, which is itself not as predictable as the title and blurb led me to believe.

This is the kind of contemporary novel that should be part of our popular fiction today. It deals conscientiously with important social issues but it's full of humanity and it's very entertaining, with elements of suspense, humor, and---now don't tell your friends this part---intellectual debate.

Sure, there's enough irony and puckish literary allusion for David Lodge fans, maybe even for devotees of Delmore Schwartz. But even the fundamentalist characters have dimension, life and a weird sort of sympathy. The all-too typical bicoastal portrait of the frozen and hearty Midwest, and all those tall, toothy folks who actually say, "you betcha," yields after the first pages to a more nuanced though no less paranoid portrayal. It's just that the paranoia gets more and more justified, even as the characters get more and more human. The exegesis of fundamentalist beliefs is thorough and thoroughly frightening, but Silverman's suppression of hysteria for an anthropological analytical calm is both effective in engaging these doctrines, and funny in a spooky, edgy way, so as readers we may find ourselves freaked by our own suppressed hysteria.

A couple of Roszak's previous novels have been optioned for film and you can see why---even in this era when it's extremely hard to get a good script made, especially if it's about contemporary American reality not involving serial killers, his writing is cinema-sympathetic. And in this novel there's a terrific central scene, that plays awfully well in the cinema of the mind.

Anyway, there should be more novels like this one, and this one should be read. Now I am going to read previous Roszak novels? You betcha.

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