Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Gilead Trilogy: The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever



In the third book of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” trilogy, “Lila,” John Ames realizes that, to his wife, his Christian observations on existence are stories:

“It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again.”

Robinson’s three novels – “Gilead,” “Home” and “Lila” – run the same risks of retelling, but are full of rewards. In them, she gives us the same characters from different points of view, with shifting perspectives and their own perceptions of what truth is. Which is key, since at the core for some of these characters is the proclamation, or rejection, of ultimate truth in the person of Jesus Christ, and what effect that has had on these few fictional residents of a small town in the United States of America.

There are times in these books that can tax an unsuspecting reader. In “Gilead,” the free-form ruminations of John Ames, aging Congregationalist minister, sometimes cry out for a narrative band to emerge within the book’s first 75 or so pages. Ames is writing in the first person to his young son, who will presumably read them at some future date after he is long dead. We are treated to what seem like repetitious epiphanies about warm summer afternoons, the glories of neighborhood baseball, the wonder he finds in that same son. The only temptation at this point is to put the book aside.

In “Home,” the narrative is more conventional – third person, showing what is going on at virtually the same time in the home of Ames’ best and oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton. He is entering his final days, cared for by his daughter Glory and his ne’er-do-well son Jack. Here, the repetitions are the mundane affairs of caregiving, the preparation of meals and the renovation of the Boughton flower beds. Coffee is endlessly prepared and consumed. Because of Jack’s two decades of absence due to his alcoholism (among other things), there is polite distance and awkwardness among them all. “I’m sorry,” is repeated countless times. Jack perpetually puts his hand to his face, shielding himself from scrutiny. Jack is not a believer, but the most frustrating kind of would-be believer; a sly, secretive dissembler who has taxed his father’s patience and faith his whole life.

In “Lila,” we are treated to Gilead, Iowa through the life of Ames’ second wife, Lila. She walked into Ames’ church one day out of the rain, the latest steps in a vagabond life as the stolen child of a defiant, proud, relentlessly private woman named Doll. Lila sees disease, privation, murder, prostitution and a lifetime’s regrets before she becomes a preacher’s wife and a mother long after she had given up any idea of roots or a shared life. The narrative style is closer to “Gilead" - meandering to reflect how quickly Lila’s consciousness flits between the past and the present, ambling toward eternity.

Robinson’s style reminds me of Updike, without the old lecher’s insistent need to go tiptoeing into some elaborate and vividly described adulterous episode. No, the Christianity of Gilead, Iowa is the kind that understands the temptations of the flesh come in less vivid colors than those worn on a passing female form, but on often mundane, familiar objects much closer at hand, on our insistent wants disguised as needs, on the politics we would risk every relationship on.

Robinson’s strategy establishes itself in “Gilead” – the reader is introduced to the characters, the contours of interaction and observation are established, and the reader slowly begins to realize that hidden within these seemingly drab surroundings and mundane movements are old, desiccated resentments, bleeding regrets, impossible hopes, and stark, insurmountable obstacles. But there is one secret that must force itself to the surface and be confronted, and the escalating tension toward that climax is meant to hook the reader, and instruct.

In “Lila,” Ames writes a letter to his would-be bride, hoping to explain himself romantically and theologically:

“I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. A father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and he comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, but he lets the child feel the risk it is taking, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his father over – I was going to say choose it over safety, but there is no safety. And there is no choice, either, because it is in the nature of the child to walk.”

 Much of these three books has to do with history – family history – and the passage of time as measured against the demands of Providence. God means for us to move forward, but each of our characters are consumed with the past and its demands. Lila later thinks that she has to “get through her life one way or another.” So the image of a child learning to walk is instructive, because a child only learns to walk forward. The first steps forward burn off the baby fat and begin to nurture the idea of eventual independence. And a child must grow. John Ames, and his father, grew away from the shadow of the abolitionist preacher who was their forebear. Jack Broughton has been dogged his entire life by the example of his father, which his siblings embraced. “Lila” begins with a child stolen from the cold, or was she rescued? And how many times does she fight the notion of rescue?

For me, the moment that will live in my memory forever is Ames’ memory of his father and the men of the community pulling down the ruins of a burned church, destroyed by fire, during a rainstorm. His father, black with soot, hands him an ashy, soggy biscuit, which reminds him of communion. The scene is rendered in three unforgettable pages filled with priceless English sentences. One is reminded of the comforting cadences of old hymns and the fussy devotion baked into church pies by women of deep, abiding faith. That is history – American history; history written by millions of men and women in small towns and obscure counties unbuilding and building.  

 And there is Christ. Ames tells his son that we come closest to Jesus when we sit next to Him in our own Gethsemanes, taking the cup life hands us even as we beg it off. The dying Robert Boughton in his dementia tells his friend Ames, “Jesus never had to get old,” as though rickety limbs would have taxed His infinite grace. Each time we encounter these people, we are allowed to see the terror that hope inspires. If I love a person, and love them totally, they will disappoint me, and I will disappoint them, and then where will I be? It is better to be alone, but it is impossible. Ames and his preaching ancestors, Boughton and his children, Lila and her ominous past, all have risked and lost and understand that is the nature of human life. Yet they remain willing to risk again and again.

These characters have walked the streets of Gilead so many times, wearing holes in the pavement and passing by homes that a visitor might find distinctive, but which long ago lost their allure. And still Robinson has managed to take this parochial patch of what is now known as “flyover country” and invest it, like Faulkner, with all the importance in the world. Or rather, with the importance that God presumably brings to every human life.

Joan Acocella, in The New Yorker, writes that Ames “is a kind of character that people say novelists can’t create, an exceptionally virtuous person who is nevertheless interesting.” Though the stories occasionally risk crossing the line into the precious, they never quite succeed in doing so. “Gilead” and “Home” concern themselves with aging ministers of the Gospel, while “Lila” from the unchurched world teaches Ames a few things at the end of his life even as she is introduced to the dogged permanence of baptisms. Christianity dogs us with the idea that, in the end, God will not accept partial surrenders. He wants everything, and He is ruthless, because sin and death have no remorse. That dogged, brutal, consuming love makes as many run away from it as run to it, as judged by the receding shadow of Jack Boughton. But Ames finds comfort in knowing that even his words, like himself, will pass away.   

“We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”

And there are the words of Lila, intoned toward the end of “Gilead” and repeated – “A person can change. Everything can change.” The reality of grace means that being born again is terrifying, and exhilarating, as long as we keep walking forward. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Gerard Reve's 'The Evenings': The Prayers of a Superfluous Man

"The Evenings" is appearing in English translation, and American and British readers are finally getting a chance to read Gerard Reve's book, lauded as the greatest Dutch novel.

Not a lot happens. The basic plot opens as Frits van Egters, a 23-year-old Dutchman, wakes up on the morning of Dec. 23, 1946, and our narrator follows him for the next ten days. The main action happens at night, when Frits wanders the streets in search of his friends, and the novel recounts the dreams that rouse him from fitful sleep. Frits lives with his parents, works in an office, and enjoys absurd jokes and grotesque stories. The plot occasionally threatens to erupt into something else, as Frits wanders into his parents' arguments, which his presence seems to dampen.

But a modern reader may come away from "The Evenings" wondering what all the fuss is about. What do all these meandering conversations, baldness jokes and midnight perambulations mean?

"These are trying times," Frits says to himself, an incredible statement considering what isn't happening in "The Evenings" - namely, the war. Nazi Germany invaded Holland, a neutral country, in 1940, conquering it in a matter of days. They fortified the public beaches, where the Dutch once played, against invasion. They forced tens of thousands into labor, with resisters shot. More than 25,000 Dutch volunteered to fight with the Germans, half of them dying. Even after D-Day, the majority of the Dutch remained under Nazi control, with the Germans cutting off food and fuel in retaliation for resistance. They liquidated the Jewish population, forcing them and others into hiding. Shortly before liberation, some Dutch were forced to eat tulip bulbs to stay alive.

When Frits encounters a friend, he says, "I see you have not left this earthly vale either." By situating the story in the dying days of 1946 - the first full-year without conflict since the war - Reve is telling the story of survivors of the greatest cataclysm of the 20th century. And these survivors are waking up to the reality that - this is what they had longed for, an almost smothering sense of meaninglessness.

Frits works in an office, he says, taking cards out of a file only to put them back in. Late in the book, Frits pins his hopes on whether the film he goes to see will be a good or bad one, as though this will determine the success or failure of that day's existence. The meals he samples are unremarkable, perhaps the best one a plate of homemade pastries. His greatest fears have to do with aging, or going bald. The uneasiness of his existence is that he has lived through the great conflagration and sees life yawning before him. The war, which is barely mentioned, at least gave a wisp of hope in that it would eventually end. What Frits sees now is the uncertainty of the future, and the return of routine and even tedium, to be followed by...?

Many English reviews of "The Evenings" go out of their way to compare the novel with that American hymn to dissatisfied, disenchanted youth, Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." There are some similarities, though Frits is an older version of Holden Caufield with a different key for his eunni and angst. But I think he is a closer cousin to Meursault, the hero of Camus' "The Stranger." Reve's prose has the same flat qualities as Camus, while the novels share an absurdist view of the universe. "The Stranger" looks back at us from its origins in the war, asking questions about the nature of a universe where men send other men into gas chambers, and muses on the meaning of God's seeming silence.


But Frits wanders the snowy streets with prayers on his lips, quotes the Bible, and we wonder if his ridiculous dreams might not be visions. Where Meursault rejects meaning, Frits cries out for it, because he craves a life invested with meaning.

Thinking about this, I was reminded that "The Stranger" comes to a close, before Meursault's execution, with a visit from a priest. Meursault rages at the man, though Camus does not directly quote him, but only gives us his thoughts:

"What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?"

But Reve gives us Frits, on New Year's Eve, praying for his mother and father without their knowledge, begging mercy on these poor, oblivious souls. Earlier in the evening, he had said old people should be killed outright, in jest. Now his prayer is at times desperate, comic, pathetic, heartfelt, and as moving as a psalm.

He begins with Martin Luther's famous phrase, "Here I stand," and moves on to call the Almighty "from the depths" to look upon his parents. "See them in their need. Do not turn your eyes from them." Old age, disease and death approach them, and eventually Frits, and will anyone ever care? Frits cares, and he prays that God will as well.

"Even if a question is entirely pointless, it is better than no question at all...It is no disaster, to be unhappy...but how discouraging must it be to know that there is nothing to pin the blame on, outside oneself? The grave yawns, time zooms, and salvation is nowhere to be found. Poor man. The shiver of pathos. Scrumptious pity." 

The evening, as their lives, has not gone unnoticed, he closes. The prayers of a superfluous man availeth much.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

'The Wonder' and the Power of Belief





I'm not going to sugarcoat it - I did not care for the ending of Emma Donoghue's newest novel, "The Wonder." If you don't want to delve into any spoilers, then you don't need to read any further. What I'm going to write about is what the ending says - and what it could have said - about the story that preceded it.

The novel introduces us to Elizabeth Wright, known as Lib, an English nurse hired to come to Ireland to investigate the veracity of a story - an 11-year-old girl, Anna O'Donnell, supposedly has not eaten in four months, not since her first communion wafer. Lib, along with Sister Michael, a local nun, is hired by a committee of men to determine if what is occurring is actually a miracle. For two weeks, the two women take turns making sure the child gets no food.


Lib is a very English woman plopped down into the middle of post-Potato Famine Ireland in 1859. She has a distinctive pedigree, having trained in the Crimean War with Florence Nightingale. She is also a woman touched by death in war and in peace, and it has seemingly robbed her of her faith at a time when advancing currents of knowledge and social change are upsetting the old verities of the church. Lib's observations about the Irish Catholicism practiced around her are those of a woman confident in her view of the real world, forced to deal with a superstitious, insular, obscure faith that would rather see a little girl die than admit the truth of her starving. Even her nickname "Lib" seems to stand in for the subtle tides sweeping away old dogmas that she, as a woman, trained in medicine, unencumbered by faith, seem to embody.

This is a good story that had great potential. It began to sour for me when Lib's willful arrogance became too wedded to the needs of story. Of course, she wants to believe in the credulity of the nun until it becomes obvious that Sister Michael is just as concerned for the child's welfare, and as willing to see the reality of her starving. It takes Lib far too long to realize what the audience gets immediately - that Anna's older brother hasn't emigrated to America, but is dead. And Anna's fast is not just an act of piety, but her attempt to appease the sins her brother committed with her before his death. Then, there's the character of Byrne, the reporter who is Lib's sounding board and, ultimately, one of the reason's the book disappointed me. We spend much of the book understanding that Lib is just fine by herself, thank you very much, only to be swept off her feet by the journalist. It's at least refreshing that the media was more popular in the 19th century, evidently.

The ending - Anna has survived for so long because her mother has slipped her mushed up food in kisses which she told her were "manna." When the nurses enter the picture, the child begins to starve because the mother has no contact. As Anna starts to waste away, the community is too invested in seeing her canonized to prevent her self-destruction. And Anna's mother will not hear of anything that besmirches the memory of her son. So Lib takes it upon herself to finally convince Anna to eat something, spirits the child away with the help of Byrne, fakes Anna's death, and then begins a new life with the journalist and Anna, now passed off as her own child. No one questions anyone too harshly, as everyone is, of course, glad to see the thing over. And so they lived, happily ever after.

There's a rather obvious "born again" aspect to this novel that does manage to touch the reader. It's only when Lib convinces Anna that she can "die as Anna" and live a second life unencumbered by the shame of her secret connection with her brother that she finally succumbs to the imperatives of appetite. But this grace isn't free, because part of the reason Lib makes the offer to Anna is her own need to feel like a mother again. Still, it works as a reminder of how liberating the abandoning of the past is to those who see no hope in a future, unless it is someone else's future.

Consider how the story could have ended: Anna could have died, and we might have been witness to how the story of her death would have strengthened, or weakened, the faith of those who watched her die. But this would have betrayed the tone of suspense in the novel, and the ending would have lacked resolution. A world where Lib goes back to England, shaking her head at the cost of misplaced faith, would not have satisfied.

What if Anna had taken Lib's advice to eat, and had to live with the disappointment of her family and community? In this world, Lib's example of how a woman living alone, overcoming her own disappointments, might have stayed true to the vaguely feminist tone of the work. Would Lib have felt herself a survivor of a misplaced faith, and perhaps have followed Lib out of Ireland eventually? Would that ending have worked?

Or what would have happened if Anna's miracle had actually been a miracle? What is Lib discovered, not that Anna was a child suffering under the weight of a community's expectations, but that she really was being sustained by something supernatural? Approximately a million people died due to the privations of the Irish Potato Famine. What would it mean if a single child in an obscure village was being sustained, just for a short time, by faith rather than food? What might it mean for Lib, who lost her own child?

That's not to say that any of these endings would have been preferable. "The Wonder" feels, at the end, like something Wilkie Collins would have conjured up, which may have been the point. I was more disappointed in Lib's riding off into the sunset with Byrne than her kidnapping Anna, though both felt out of place emotionally with the character I had watched for 250 pages. And I didn't need a miracle to be confirmed for me to be satisfied, though I might have enjoyed the effect this would have had on Lib. 

Miracles act as signs that testify to the glory and mystery of God. They show God's favor on individuals, at specific times, so that those who believe may draw strength, and those who do not believe may be drawn to a tenuous proof of God's existence and love. For most of the novel, Lib is a woman of reason frustrated among a people stooping under the expectations of a faith that keeps them ignorant, poor and fearful, blind to the real dangers even in their own households. But her reason is also frustrated in that it cannot answer everything, cannot save anything, except when it chooses the most irrational solution, trusting that the promise of another day and another chance is all that a child needs to grow.

Which brings us back to the miracle of salvation, because it shows an irrational God alive and active in a rational universe He created, which has at its heart an uncertain certainty in the flights of sparrows and the rise and fall of His children. There is no reason He should want us, yet He was willing to give up everything for us. An implausible ending, perhaps, and full of possibilities in that it is no ending at all.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Temptation of Saul Goodman


If anyone still wonders whether “Better Call Saul” has cheapened the reputation of “Breaking Bad,” the show it came from, that question was probably answered last season in the second episode with two simple words:

“Squat Cobbler.”

We are in 2002, when the show’s titular subject still goes by the name Jimmy McGill. A small-time lawyer coming into his own, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) is threatening to become respectable, but he is approached to represent a clueless middle-class baseball card collector who has been selling drugs on the side. The police found a hidden panel in the man’s house and now Jimmy must reassure two investigators that his client is clean.

I couldn’t help but think about the interrogation of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cole in the first season of “True Detective” during this scene. Jimmy exudes an air of confidence as he begins to offer his explanation that nothing illegal has happened. He tells his story with just the right pose of candor, mixed with reticence, to draw them in. At first, his explanation makes it sound as though the cops have stumbled onto a porn operation, then a homosexual relationship. No, Jimmy assures them, you know what it is.

Squat cobbler. Full moon moon pie. Boston Crème Splat.

“It’s when a man sits in a pie,” he finally levels with them, after they insist on an explanation. “And he…he wiggles around. Cry baby squats...And there is a costume involved.” The look of incredulity on the detectives’ faces only adds to our enjoyment as we hear this heretofore unknown fetish.

The story is so incredible, the cops realize, that he must be telling the truth, which of course, he isn’t. But then, Jimmy began the conversation by asking, “Who among us is without sin?”

When these moments happen in “Better Call Saul,” we are awed by what showrunner Vince Gilligan is doing before our eyes. After all, don’t we know already where Jimmy is headed? Doesn’t that make it harder for us to be entertained this time?

There was a moment early in the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” when its creators telegraphed to the audience the nature of the journey this  “Breaking Bad” prequel/spinoff would take. Jimmy leaves the courthouse with his lighter-than-expected public defender’s check and walks to his car. He does not get into a glittering Cadillac like we expect him to – he instead angles his ill-fitting brown double-breasted into a Suzuki Esteem, which features one miscolored replacement door.

This isn’t meant to be “The Misadventures of Saul Goodman.” Something on a grander scale is taking place and like its predecessor, this show will feature a rise that is a fall.

There have been plenty of moments like this. “Better Call Saul” glories in its long pauses. The slow motion of the prosecutor wheeling out the TV and VCR to play video evidence in a trial of three juvenile delinquents. Jimmy waiting for the elevator to descend at his brother’s law firm.  The slow steps of a widow going to fetch the money for the writing of her will. The time it takes Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to take Jimmy’s parking sticker. The show wants you to know that the slick-talking, cellphone-hoarding, ambulance chasing genius of Saul Goodman didn’t spring fully-formed from the head of its creator. This is a creative risk, though. Fans of “Breaking Bad,” with the show’s bloody climax still fresh on their minds, might switch off as the action isn’t meth deals and money laundering but establishing a law practice and building a RICO case against a chain of price-gouging retirement homes.

Still, the style of “Better Call Saul” clearly mirrors “Breaking Bad,” and we are treated to helpful cameos by Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), Walt’s original meth distributor, and the presence of the aforementioned Mike, the fixer. We even get Mike’s backstory, about which more later. But while many Internet dissections have looked at how “Better Call Saul” stacks up to its predecessor in terms of action or style, few have looked at how Jimmie’s metamorphosis into Saul Goodman compares to Walter’s budding as the homicidal Heisenberg.

“Better Call Saul” has opened both seasons with its title character in the present day, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would be the manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, adapting to a new identity after the fall of Walter White. At night, still afraid of being recognized, he sits down to watch videos of the over-the-top commercials for his former law practice. A similar thing happened to Walt once in the meth Superlab while he and Jesse Pinkman were chasing a fly: He sat down to wonder, in a daze, what the perfect moment for his death might have been. In doing so, it was his way of asking, “How did I get here?”

The rest of “Saul”’s action takes place six years prior to the start of “Breaking Bad.” James McGill is a bedraggled lawyer operating a seedy office out of a nail salon, practicing on a law degree he earned online through the University of American Samoa. He is his own administrative assistant, speaking over the phone with a ridiculous British accent. As his car testifies, he is barely hanging on through maxed out credit cards and legal grunt work. That’s because he must also support his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), a brilliant lawyer holed up in his expensive house, unable to work because of a psychosomatic fear of electromagnetic fields. Sources of power, such as electricity, or communication, like cellphones, terrify him.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Chuck owns a sizable stake in a major law firm. If he simply cashes out, he would have millions. But Chuck insists he will overcome his circumstances, and Jimmy doggedly believes in him. That’s why he rips up a sure lifeline in a $26,000 check from Chuck’s partner, Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian).

We like Jimmy. He’s such a grinder, hosting bingo games at the retirement home in order to get clients, and even Howard is awed at the legwork he puts in. He’s indomitable. A montage shows him marshaling through weeks of cases, going over his courtroom monologues in the men’s room, fueled by coffee. He’s a lovable rogue, as we might have suspected. After a scam to (in essence) blackmail a couple into taking him on as a lawyer backfires, Jimmy is able to not only talk his way out of a desert execution at the hands of a drug lord, but also escape with the lives of two extortion-minded skateboarders (though with some injuries to them.)

Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between Jimmy and Walter White. When we first meet Walt, he appears to be what we would call a good man. Still, he is a man with a brilliant future behind him – a scientific genius who missed out on his big chance and instead works in a carwash to make ends meet while working honorably as a teacher. It is his pride, though, that needles him enough to seize on a terminal cancer diagnosis as the pretext for a criminal enterprise that will warp him and kill scores of people. All of this is done in the name of protecting his family, but even in the end, at his last moments, Walter is proud of what he has done.

Jimmy has his own pride. But he is also “Slippin’ Jimmy,” a former con-artist who used to scam money from unsuspecting strangers and narrowly avoided a sex offender wrap thanks to his brother. (Like “Squat Cobbler,” the show has done a lot to add the term “Chicago Sun Roof” to the public consciousness.) And like Walter, Jimmy at first cares about his family, in the person of Chuck. Jimmy knows who and what he is – a man who takes shortcuts. He tries out Chuck’s high-minded advice – “Do good work and the clients will come” – but Chuck’s example, in the end, pushes Jimmy further toward darker waters. Even the act of returning more than $1 million to the authorities is morally compromised, as Jimmy enlists Mike to “steal” it, all in the name of “doing the right thing.”

Jimmy, like Walter, expects, even insists, on something more for himself. He takes a dubious “retainer” from a stash of embezzled funds to fund his attempt at publicity, announcing to himself, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”  He stages a high-profile rescue to gain clients. And he realizes he will never be anything more to his brother than “Slippin’ Jimmy” with a law degree, which is infinitely more dangerous.

Jimmy finds his way to a respectable law firm for the second season, but almost immediately, he is unable to restrain his darker side. He falsifies evidence. He violates the ethical cannon in search of clients for a class-action lawsuit. He films a commercial without the knowledge of his law firm and runs it without permission. This places the audience in an uncomfortable position. We don’t like Chuck because he doesn’t warm to Jimmy’s act, but we already know what will become of Jimmy, and we grudgingly realize that Chuck is right.

Mike is one constant between both shows, and it is Mike’s morally-compromised ex-cop turned fixer that allows us to realize the ultimate cost of Jimmy’s chicanery. “The law is sacred,” Chuck tells Jimmy. “If you abuse that power, people get hurt” – something we already know. “Better Call Saul” gives us a roll call of clueless characters across the moral spectrum: The Kettlemans, a couple of embezzlers who believe they deserve their ill-gotten money;  a militant ranch owner who wants to secede and prints his own money, and even an inventor who unwittingly creates a double-entendre spouting toilet for toddlers. But Mike reminds us that though there are good criminals and bad criminals, we should dispense with the idea that there can be such a thing as a clean dirtiness. A lovable rogue is still a rogue. Mike is willing to take a savage beating at the hands of a drug dealer in the second season, but only because he resists the idea of killing him. Mike knows the cost of murder.


“The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” John tells us, “comes not from the Father but from the world.” (I John 2:16 NIV) The world is unforgiving. Perhaps the most powerful moment of “Better Call Saul’s” first season was Mike’s tearful confession to his daughter-in-law about how her husband was killed. Mike’s son Matt was a Philadelphia policeman who was gunned down because he would not immediately go along with a precinct’s corruption. Instead, at Mike’s urging, he took money, and still got killed. Why did he take the money? Because Mike admitted that he too was corrupt.

“I broke my boy. He couldn’t be trusted. I got Matty to take the money. And they killed him two days later. He was the strongest person that I ever knew. He would have never done it, not even to save himself. I was the only one. I was the only one that could get him to debase himself like that. And it was for nothing. I made him lesser. I made him like me…”

And Matty still died. Mike lost the pedestal his son gave him, and then lost his son. The insatiable hunger of evil eventually takes everything.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.