Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another satisfied reader

"This is one INCREDIBLE self-published book, and worth the time you need to take to read it...In the grouping of books that make you think, Brilliant Disguises and Imaginary Jesus are on the top of my list for this year. If you are able to get a copy, grab one quickly!"
That the verdict of blogger Carol Keen. You can read her review here.

You can order your copy of "Brilliant Disguises" in hardback, paperback or e-book at www.brilliantdisguises.com, or at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million.

Facebook and the Heavenly Community

An interesting thing happened to me recently on Facebook.

A friend began a discussion on a topic in the news and I contributed to the thread. I asked some questions and made a few comments, as anyone does when contributing on Facebook. While my friend and I disagreed on the issue, we could see each other’s viewpoint and perhaps came to understand each other a little better. But the longer this thread went on, another person and another contributed, and at one point, I found myself arguing with someone I didn’t even know. Not wishing to offend, I tried to terminate my end of the discussion. To tell the truth, I also felt insulted by the other person’s comments.

I was then accused of trying to “take my ball and go home.” In my defense, I felt I responded in the same way anybody would in that situation, and I told the person I hoped I hadn’t offended them. I didn’t really know how else to respond. I felt a host of contradictory emotions - I was offended, I felt a vague lust for revenge, I had an appalling realization of my intellectual vanity, and a regret that I obviously hadn’t expressed myself well enough for one person to get my point. Then, I reminded myself that, in the end, the issue wasn’t worth all that much fuss anyway. Even reasonable people can be unreasonable, given the right circumstances.

But in the ridiculous emotional aftermath of this situation, I found myself curious about the person I had suddenly encountered on Facebook, so I looked up this person’s information. Among the vital statistics was the word “Christian.” And it suddenly occurred to me that, if I believe what I say I do and this person does as well, then one of the souls I’m going to be spending eternity with is this person, who basically let me know that I’m unreasonable, my opinions (at least on one issue) are uninformed, and that I don’t particularly sound like someone worth knowing. You can imagine my longing, at that moment, for the bliss of Heaven.

But Facebook presents us with an interesting set of facts, not only about our fellow men (and women), but ourselves. Facebook operates on a system whereby you seek out, identify, categorize, and bond with a set of friends. You make new friends. In some cases, you drop old friends. You perhaps bond with casual acquaintances that, in real life, you may have little or no interest in or contact with. Through other friends, you make connections with people that you may never have met in your whole life, nor ever will. Because it is a “social” network, your interaction with it depends on just how social you feel like being. You get out of it what you put in.

Like other people, one of the things I find amusing about Facebook is what you find out about your friends that you might never have known otherwise. A lot of my friends, for example, enjoy the games on Facebook that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever. I find out about my friends’ interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. At one point, I learned that one of my friends liked, at the same time, Robert Pattinson and Jesus Christ, a juxtaposition that I found amusing when I saw both names at the same time, given equal billing. I suspect how much enthusiasm there was for either.

The status update, or the “poke,“ gives you a window on other people too. Some people like to tell you what they’re up to, at any given moment. Some just like to check in and let you know where they physically are at any given moment. Some will vent. Some want to show you how amusing they can be. Song lyrics get quoted, jokes get shared, stories are passed, and life in all its permutations unfolds before your eyes. Because of this, others like to check updates without letting you in on where they’re drinking coffee or what kind of lunch they’re enjoying or how they feel about the election. Political opinions get shared too, and you can either be shocked at a friend’s extremism or angry that they didn’t go far enough. You don’t have to necessarily reply if you disagree, or you can engage them and make them defend their point of view. And everyone has seen friends suddenly take opportunities to make personal statements about themselves - by changing their profile picture, or showing their concern for a particular issue. Occasionally, your friends even opt out, sometimes without a word of explanation.

And as my disagreement illustrates, the age of social media also introduces us to the more unpleasant aspects of our earthly confinement. Facebook doesn’t give you an idea of the tone of other people’s voices when they try to make points. It doesn’t let you see their facial expressions. Like other aspects of the Internet, it may even allow you to hide anonymously behind a name (that may not be your own) and even a picture. It can and has been a mechanism for stalking, intimidation, abuse, and anguish. One pastor said Facebook could be used as a tool to facilitate adultery, and then proved it - whether he intended to or not - by revealing how he had used it for that very purpose. So social media, like so much else in life, is morally neutral. We can use it however we see fit, and often, we see it through the only eyes we have, as fallen beings.

But there are other stories, such as my friend who suddenly lost his wife a year ago and regularly receives encouragement from me and the rest of his friends in dealing with her loss. Or the friend who lost her job and is using Facebook to look for another, with friends eager to help. My divorced friends who need daily reminders of their worth as people and their importance to me and others. Or the regular calls for prayer for sick loved ones and friends, or those feeling the anguish of everyday life.

And it’s this aspect that I find myself curious about. Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated that “Hell is other people.” But Heaven will most assuredly be other people, and Facebook teaches us something about that ultimate destination. The Golden Rule - “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you” - is often interpreted to mean civility, or little more than good citizenship. But citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven are called to not simply refrain from doing evil. The command is much deeper and much more demanding - that we actively seek the good in each and every situation and do it. And that good involves being consumed with the welfare and well-being of those around us, both the friendly and the not-so-friendly. That we see the other as God sees them, and we sacrifice for them as He was willing to sacrifice for them.

Jesus died for everyone - including that guy you can't stand, the one who can’t spell, or the one who didn’t like the health care bill, or the one who said the unpleasant thing about your brother-in-law. Like it or not, we are going to be spending a lot of time together in the future, to put it mildly. We can’t just “take our ball and go home.” And we are learning here and now, as never before, how difficult that can be.

The rules and the situations will be different there, of course. We will not see ourselves and each other through the prism of sin, which clouds and corrodes every movement and every touch. Our words will not have their ever-present patina of malice draped over them, nor will we be automatically guarded and unconsciously alert to every perceived slight. We will not be carrying the emotional baggage of every incautious word we have either spoken or heard. And we will be finally stripped of the ignorance we bring to each and every moment of our lives. We will know, just as we are fully known, forever. No secrets. No 20-year-old profile pictures. No hiding behind Farmville. You and the other, in the presence of God, who Himself will be fully revealed and worthy of worship. The implications of that are both terrifying and exhilarating.

The reverse is just as stark. What if hell, for instance, isn’t other people at all, but solitude? Separation from God is one thing, but the silence of God must be filled, either with the anguish of others or the magnitude of our own. An eternity to contemplate, in exhausted and exhaustive detail, the regrets of a lifetime, perhaps by ourselves, or burned by the torment of others can be seen in the momentary collapses of civility we see on Facebook and elsewhere. Some situations are only tolerable because of the presence of others. But a relentless torment with no relief, with not even the comfort of camaraderie? This is the ultimate end of what we carry inside us when we lash out, or lash back, for whatever reason here. “Dislike” doesn’t even cover it.

So Facebook is a window and an opportunity, a foreshadowing of what is to come, and a laboratory for what is still possible. As we discover each other, we discover ourselves. And we discover Him through each other, which is what He wants us to do, peeking in on each others statuses, giving the occasional poke, as we update each other along the way.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa

Last week’s news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature led to me pick up “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” Llosa’s version of a hard-boiled detective mystery translated into backwater South America.

What permeates this whole work is a feeling of listless indifference. The first chapter describes the body of Palomino Molero - an bony young airman in the Peruvian Air Force who is later found dead, virtually emasculated. Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma begin their investigations in a lackadaisical fashion - not by choice, but because of their limitations. They need a cab to the crime scene. They walk long distances when they cannot get a ride. Though witnesses mourn the loss of Molero’s singing voice, they don’t seem all that interested in who killed him, or why.

Llosa does something interesting here with pace and tone. This novel is only 150 pages long. Descriptions are spare. Dialogue dominates the narrative. There are the usual tricks of the mystery in that information we glean may only be momentarily correct. But action is, like the setting, listless and slow. Suppositions often lead to recalibration. Palomino Molero, for example, is not a draftee but an enlistee. The reason for this becomes clearer when Silva and Lituma uncover the reasons he joined. As a barmaid says, “He brought on his own tragedy.” Silva and Lituma must then navigate the no man’s land between military and civilian justice.

The reason for everyone’s indifference, outside our two lawmen, is the corruption one sees on every page. Molero’s murder is an outrage because “in these parts, people kill each other fair and square, man to man. But crucifying, torturing, that’s new.” Whatever solution Silva and Lituma find is discarded as being a cover story to allow the real guilty parties, shadowy higher-ups, to escape unnamed and unpunished.

As with all good hard boiled noir, Llosa gives you as much atmosphere as mystery. But instead of a big city with the corruption of politics and technology, instead we get the sweat from the sun in a mostly rural, corrupt backwater fetid with the scent of chicken droppings and endless toil.

Even Silva does not seem to care so much about catching a murderer as catching the barmaid whom he spies on at the riverside during her morning bath. Llosa gives, in the middle of a murder investigation, a playful, laughing regard for life. Life - which eludes easy definition and promises mystery once the first question is asked.

As Lieutenant Silva says, “Only death is definitive.”

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Morality by Stephen King

Tucked away in Stephen King's recent mini-book "Blockade Billy" was a disquieting little story called "Morality," worthy of a 19th century Russian author.

In a few short pages, King introduces us to Nora and Chad, a couple living in New York in the midst of the recession, scrambling to pay bills. Chad is an aspiring writer who hopes to finish a non-fiction collection and bring in some extra money. But this is just a prayer, and even though our young couple are earnest and believe in each other, reality rarely yields up the answer to a prayer the way one hopes. The solution to their money problems, though, comes through Nora, a nurse who works with a retired minister, Winston. The old clergyman, who conveniently has a horde of ready cash, is a stroke victim who has had a lot of time to ruminate on what he's been missing out in his life.

The story contains a few tropes familiar to any longtime King reader. Chad is a smoker, and when Nora asks him for a puff, he knows she's been shaken, since she constantly harps on the money going out to pay for his habit. Not only is this a well-documented crib from what we know of King's early married life as a struggling writer, it is also a hallmark of King stories that the passing of a cigarette is a symbol for temptation or moral laxity. The other easily recognizable King image is Winston himself, for he comes in the form King has sometimes used in the past for his men of the cloth - that of the tempter. Winston, with his "long sheep's face" and sheep eyes, is a wolf, or a dog "that bites and runs away." The biography he recounts, of simple selfless service, seems like a spectacular lie in light of what he reveals about himself later through his actions.

Nora reaches for a cigarette because Winston has offered an ungodly amount of money to Nora if she will help him do something his condition denies him - he wants to commit a sin. "This is not about sex," he assures her, and King slyly waits until the moment the sin occurs before he reveals just what it is Winston wants her to do. With Chad standing nearby holding a video camera to record the event, Nora is to go to a playground, pick out a child, and punch the child hard enough to draw blood. The meaningless act of violence will satisfy the terms of his bargain, and give the couple enough money to restart their lives away from the city, pay all their bills, and chase down Chad's dream of publication.

King's choice of "sin" is interesting. Strictly speaking, it is assault. Motiveless violence. The fact that a child is the victim touches on the violation of innocence that is the heart of this story. We like Nora, and we like Chad, because they are familiar, striving, young people who are beginning to feel the injustice of life, where no one will pay them for their good intentions but reward criminals in skyscrapers who make millions on empires of lies. Winston, obviously, is no ordinary clergyman, but he is diabolically good at this sin business. And he knows forgiveness is open to him even after the deed is done. But Winston, though it is never stated in the story, seems to miss the power of the pulpit. "We hold out heaven, then make people understand they have no hope of achieving it without our help," he tells Nora, and we see that his bet is a weird, negative recreation of his years of ministry. He warns her that he doesn't want to wallow in sin, but dive headlong in, regardless of whether he is chained to the life of a walking invalid. Winston perceives innocence in his nurse, and he means to destroy it.

The offer has the desired effect. Chad calls it a "bridge to nowhere," but during a sleepless night, the two contemplate how they might carry it out, and what they can do with the money. And suddenly, this proposition does indeed seem to be about sex, because the two of them are aroused by it. The effect, though, is that they are being spiritually violated by Winston, with the consequences to come. Nora delivers the punch, much harder than she intended, and releases something inside her in the process.

The child who receives the punch isn't seriously harmed, but Nora nervously keeps rewinding and watching the image of her delivering the blow. Chad and Nora's relationship is now rougher, coarser, harsher toward each other. The hostility they have unleashed is now aimed at each other. Winston revels in the damage he has wrought. After he watches Nora watching herself punch the child, he asks "is feeling dirty always a bad thing?" Nora, an agnostic, asks Winston how he intends to square this with God.

"If a sinner like Simon Peter could go on to found the Catholic Church, I expect I'll be fine."
"Did Simon Peter keep the videotape to watch on cold winter evenings?"

The sin of Simon Peter was denial - the denial of Jesus at the moment of his betrayal and condemnation. What we can glean from the Bible is that Peter needed forgiveness is order to be useful to God with the founding of the church. He understood that his faith was his only means of salvation. Winston, the only believer in this story, sees faith merely as a diving bell - which allows him to view the depths of human experience while still within a life-sustaining cocoon. Though this story is very old in its sensibilities, it's interesting that King uses the motif of the video image - record, rewind, rewatch, commit to memory - to facilitate the sin. This sort of spiritual pornography is what Winston wants to gorge on, with the help of his accomplices.

Once the deed is done, Nora leaves her job with the money in hand. In the end, Winston either dies or kills himself, but Nora wonders if he had set up a video camera to record his own exit. She indulges in wild sex with anonymous men and her marriage dies as Chad's bookish ambitions run aground. They have fled the city, but the money has not fulfilled them - not as much as their brush with iniquity. They are not happier. We understand, at story's end, that Nora knows something about the nature of morality, but King chooses not to tell us what it is. We don't know whether he expects us to know, or believes each individual reader will find an answer.

Other posts about Stephen King's work here and here

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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

There is a classic air to Philip Roth's "Nemesis." The sun is evoked like an object of veneration. Children worship momentarily a man who hurls a javelin in a display of manly athletic power. Stories of ancient rites and ancient men are told around campfires to wild-eyed, bewildered listeners.

The style of "Nemesis" is similar to the other books in this ongoing series, which a Roth works list at the book's beginning helpfully describes as a cycle entitled "Nemeses: Short Novels." Like "The Humbling," "Desperation," and "Everyman," we are presented a male main character who faces an emasculating life or death trauma. "Nemesis" is written with long, complex sentences that wind through characters and situations back upon themselves. The story is told briskly, in less than 300 pages.

"Nemesis" follows Bucky Cantor, a Jewish gym teacher in New Jersey in the year of 1944, when life and death dramas are played out daily in Europe and the Pacific. Bucky, a 4-F, was denied glory on the battlefield because of his eyesight, and he struggles against his vision as do the other protagonists of Roth's late short novels - their aspiration forever frustrated by reality. Bucky, however, cannot escape the feeling that his misfortunes are his own fault. In this case, the problem is a polio epidemic in the Jewish neighborhood, and as the children Bucky watches over begin to succumb to disease, and death, he feels a growing sense of responsibility.

An obvious conclusion is that Roth is returning to the New Jersey of his childhood for this particular story. But one is conscious of the backdrop - World War II - and the ongoing liquidation of Europe's Jews in the concentration camps. Instead of fighting that menace, Bucky instead fights fear that begins to grip his community as families and children begin looking for the secret sources of the growing contagion, which robs the limbs of power and the lungs of breath. When one frantic parent asks, "Our Jewish children are our riches...Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?" one has the Holocaust in miniature. A grief stricken father says for the whole planet, "The meaninglessness of it! A terrible disease drops from the sky and somebody is dead overnight. A child, no less!"

Which brings us to the other feature of "Nemesis," which is the feeling that stirs in Bucky that what follows him may not be a horror of his own making but a supernatural one. As Bucky begins to wonder at the purpose of innocent children suddenly being robbed of life, he begins to suspect that God is behind it all. This feeling grows in him, as tragedy piles on top of tragedy, both at home among his children and on the battlefield with his friends:

"Bucky's conception of God, as I thought I understood it, was of an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be adduced not from doubtful biblical evidence but from irrefutable historical proof, gleaned during a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the twentieth century. His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one God-head, as in Christianity, but of two" - a sadistic soul and an evil genius.

It's interesting that Roth gives his character a sentiment C.S. Lewis expressed in "A Grief Observed" - that God can sometimes feel like a cosmic vivisectionist, that His power is not perfectly displayed in His grace, but instead in His ability to torture creation. Roth, who does not believe in an afterlife, God, Christ, or otherwise, creates a character who feels the presence of God in the negative, and presumes a God intimately involved in our day-to-day lives, for the purposes of destruction, like a child who destroys the sand castle he has spent the last two hours creating. This proof is not comforting, for how does the created hope to last against the Creator? The feeling that one strives against a Being who will not bless him even if he should grab hold of Him dogs Bucky and haunts the reader.

In mid-story, Bucky flees the playground to the summer camp where his girlfriend works. He feels secure in the mountains, and enjoys the love of the woman he intends to marry. His girl sings "I'll Be Seeing You" to him, a song that he resurrects later in life, the story of a lover who is reminded of the beloved in the familiar places of life that they have shared. But one wonders if this love song isn't instead a more menacing reminder that God is always watching. It falls to the book's final third act, where we see our faceless narrator revealed as one of Bucky's grown playground children, to allow events to reveal Bucky as he existed before and as these fears are realized, in his mind. Whether they are, in fact, so, is yet one more question for the reader to navigate.

"Nemesis" of course, was the Greek goddess of retribution. But the word also means an antagonist who brings punishment, or the cause of inevitable downfall. Whatever Roth's intent, he has created a universe of possibility in the chaos that forms, like a contagion, in the air of summer camps and summer romances where danger is thought to be distant but secrets itself behind our desperate longings, and in a negative faith that offers no consolation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s “Solar” swirls with a vortex of false narratives. The hapless hero, Michael Beard, is a physicist at the book’s beginning in 2000 who is brooding over the ruins of his fifth marriage. He is a Nobel Laureate, coasting on the accomplishments of his youth and seemingly doomed to playing out the string of his life by gaining weight, taking teaching positions and engaging in research of little distinction.

But that’s only the truth of his position. Beard senses his wife’s infidelity, so he fabricates a lover of his own, and the damage is done. Through a typical series of McEwanesque calamities, he pins a murder on another man, uses a dead man’s research as his own, and ultimately in entangled with a woman who fabricates her own lover to tease him. Any character’s individual honesty is only as good as their least elegantly told lie.

But all of these fictions point to something else - one of the grand narratives of our time - global warming. The idea that human consumption of energy is slowly but inevitably heating the atmosphere and will have catastrophic effects on human life is accepted by the scientific community but dismissed by much of the public as either an elaborate hoax or the kind of doomsday scenario scientists dream up for more government funding.

McEwan’s aim - to write a novel “about” global warming - seems a task tailor made for him. McEwan’s supple prose has been used before in illustrating, through fiction, the beauty of science. His usual combination of macabre happenstance and an appreciation for the comic in the human condition are up to the task here. But instead of writing a big, important novel about the dangers of consumption, McEwan has written a comic novel so subtle and enjoyable that his message, if he intended one, might be totally unrecognized.

McEwan slyly plays on the public’s skepticism about global warming to construct a story about false stories. And over ten years time, we follow Beard as his false stories grow through his career, his relationships, and his objectives. But we are aware, even as he is not, that none of these stories will last forever. The truth will not be held at bay indefinitely. Men framed for murder eventually leave jail. Jilted lovers will not be ignored. Plagiarism will out. A lifetime of junk food, alcohol and sedentary living will eventually choke the heart. McEwan leaves the parallel there, untouched, for the reader to pick up - that global warming can’t be ignored forever. Eventually, all the doubters will have to acknowledge they were wrong. But will it be too late by then? This is a playful invitation to believe, and quite refreshing. As someone who is dubious of the doomsday claims myself, I found his “argument” strangely compelling.

This isn’t a book of long sermons in the service of Al Gore-like hysteria. Instead, even as Beard gives speeches and engages in conversations about the dangers of global warming, he is thinking about his next meal, his insistent nausea, his lover. This is quite a journey, since at the book’s beginning, Beard is an indifferent, slightly skeptical believer in the truth of our rising temperatures. Predictably for McEwan, the book’s devout believer is a crank - a brilliant crank whose research Beard appropriates after the man’s untimely and convenient death.

Beard, our “hero,” reminds one of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the character in John Updike’s famous tetralogy on American life. Rabbit grows thick around the middle and hastens his own demise through his self indulgence and indifference to the consequences of his actions. It is Beard’s self-satisfaction that keeps this book grounded, as he leaps from lover to lover, trying to stay ahead of time itself, inventing his own explanations that only serve a little while. He even notices this himself, and is amused by it:

“At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short-and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.”

McEwan is an atheist, which makes his book that much more interesting, because he has created a book about belief. Michael Beard doesn’t believe in global warming until it suits him, but we aren’t sure he believes so much as he wants to wrap himself in something that will make others believe in him. He clings to his image even as it deserts him, and at book’s end reaches out for the touch of the toddler daughter he was a second before ready to abandon. He doesn’t need rising oceans to signal the end of the world - he unwittingly brings it on himself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

“To imagine a man wholly destitute of freedom is the same thing as to imagine a man destitute of life.”

These words come not from Jonathan Franzen‘s heralded new novel but from the novel that keeps getting mentioned in it - Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Many times, Tolstoy reminds us that free will is something that diminishes the more we become entangled in the affairs of others, because their individual and collective senses of freedom are inescapably tied to ours.

The question of freedom, and “Freedom,” is ultimately what it means. Franzen’s novel has gotten plenty of attention - and backlash - since its publication earlier this month. Like its namesake, Franzen’s work will probably mean many things to many different people. To me, it was an endlessly frustrating reading experience.

“Freedom” bears more than a passing structural resemblance to “The Corrections,” Franzen’s 2001 book that earned him the praise and ire of Oprah Winfrey, and the reputation he enjoys today. “The Corrections” began with a scene-setting set piece to introduce us to its family, the Lamberts, then individual sections that focused on each member - the parental couple and their three children, Chip, Gary and Denise. For example, the section that dealt with Chip, and presented the self-important literary “hump” to the book, was derided by critics as being a trial to navigate before unlocking the rest of the rich novel. The other sections fleshed out our expectations. The book concluded with a bittersweet grace note epilogue that ties all of its characters together, “corrected” by each other and the events in their lives.

“Freedom” begins with the Berglunds, another Midwestern family, this time with two children - if one doesn’t count the passive-aggressive father Walter and the neurotic obsessive mother Patty. Instead of a third child, we have Walter’s best friend Richard, the secret repository of Patty’s sexual fantasies going all the way back to college.

The “hump” section of “Freedom” is Patty’s story, written by her for her therapist, with Patty referring to herself in the third person. More than a few readers have pointed out that Patty sounds a lot like Franzen stylistically, which reveals one of the major flaws of this very ambitious book. “Freedom” offers many observations, but the reader is not at all sure sometimes where these observations are coming from. Are they from the characters, or Franzen? Does this matter? It does when the tone of the book continues to become and more misanthropic as the book progresses. One sees the rest of the world - with all its other people, with all their disgusting otherness - as a travesty, a hindrance, a check on the characters’ freedom, to the point where the reader is left wondering if this is characterization, an artistic pose, or the author’s lack of regard for the rest of us mere mortals. One is reminded of the couple at the other table in the restaurant who continue to eat while cursing the food, the waiter, the other diners, etc.

We move through Walter’s story, Richard’s story, and find that the three adults are supposed to remind us of Tolstoy’s troika of Prince Andrei, Pierre and Natasha from “War and Peace.” More on that later. We then move on to Joey and Jessica, the Burglund’s two children. Jessica, a perfect liberal, is forever at odds with Joey, the Republican dolt. Joey’s chief occupation is running to and from Connie, the neighbor who very obviously would put her head through a plate glass window for him if he wished. Jessica exists to make her father happy, in the way that Patty dotes on Joey and is forever frustrated with him.

The party affiliations also bring up another gripe. There’s a disturbing political morality to all of this that is constantly off-putting. More often than not, Republican is shorthand in this novel for evil, just as religion is wrapped up in politics, and rendered either bad or annoying. All of this is fine for a campaign commercial, but this is supposed to be art. If the Great American Novel can be boiled down to a simple equation of Liberal Democrat= virtue, vision, intellectual, true, good - and Conservative Republican = mean, viscous, evil, stupid, greedy - then the field of candidates for the Novel has simultaneously gotten a lot bigger and much shallower. George W. Bush broods over this novel like a volcano menacing a sleeping city. Franzen seems to forget that his audience lived through the last ten years just like him. The familiar and tiresome gripes of the Iraq War, etc. have been rehearsed so many times that they lose any power they might have emotionally or intellectually. We get it, Jon. You didn’t agree with Bush v. Gore.

But the novel has many virtues. One is its sprawling inventiveness. Franzen gives us the history of the Berglunds going back several generations, which illustrates how much of these characters’ decisions are as much genetic predispositions as responses to the moment. Another is his use of the environment to describe how far the characters self-regard will clash with their regard for others. As the novel progresses, one sees that the inspiration for Walter’s interest in the hardly-endangered bird he hopes to preserve is merely his own long-checked ambition.

Franzen is also good at illustrating the divide between the elder Berglunds, boomers that they are with all the obligatory neuroses, with their children, who are destined not to understand them as much as they are misunderstood. Though the Berglunds have labored mightily to give their children a sense of freedom, the children don’t appreciate it, in the way that each generation squanders and ignores the lessons of the last one. This is one of the endearing, enduring qualities of the book. Franzen gives the reader fully-realized characters in ways that many novelists can only aspire to, with a rich leavening of information about weapons contracting, nature preserves, mountain top removal mining, and the politics of music. But he doesn't lose sight of the human. Toward the end of all of these moments, Patty's mother Joyce tells her, "I guess my life hasn't always been happy, or easy, or exactly what I wanted. At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they'll break my heart." Many readers will nod their heads, having heard them before, or said them.

But he forgets something crucial, and that is that the reader desperately wants some reason to believe in these people, to like them. The Berglunds and the universe around them grow tedious after a few hundred pages, chiefly because there is very little to actually like about them. If they ring recognizable for stretches, it isn’t discomfort that makes them tiresome but how little we sense Franzen thinks of them. And somehow, of us.

For all the comparisons to “War and Peace,” the endless passages about freedom that pockmark this book reminded me of Tolstoy’s other great work, “Anna Karenina.” Levin, contemplating his impending marriage to Kitty, muses that he is about to lose his freedom, and then smiles at the question. “Freedom? Why freedom? Happiness is only in loving and desiring, thinking her desires, her thoughts - that is, no freedom at all - that’s what happiness is!”

Franzen seems to be telling us something similar to Tolstoy - that freedom is something we define for ourselves, and our conception of it defines us. But Tolstoy’s definition was a radically Christian one - that freedom spent on the self is squandered and meaningless. The illustration that Franzen provides us is the negative of Tolstoy’s, and our time with his book feels as misspent as a life spent only unto itself.
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Friday, July 23, 2010

Brilliant Disguises: Now available as an e-book

"Brilliant Disguises" is now available as an e-book at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other outlets. The reviews are rolling in:

"Thornton has much to offer the Christian fiction genre, and I hope that a publishing company picks him up soon." Christy's Book Blog reviews Brilliant Disguises here:


The book is "compelling, calling the reader to examine their own life with regards to their actions and motives." Radiant Lit also liked the reader's guide:


"Enjoyable" "Convicting" "An inspiring book with a great message." That's what an Ohio blogger says about "Brilliant Disguises." You can read the review here:


Book Critiques gave the novel four stars. You can read that review here:


AusJenny, an Australian blogger, said "Brilliant Disguises" is "thought-provoking" and "a great read." You can read the review here:


"Brilliant!" You can read Winning Readings review here:


Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Mention in the Leeds News

Brilliant Disguises got mentioned in The Leeds News here.

I will be signing copies at Moody's Doris Stanley Memorial Library Thursday, Feb. 18 at 11 a.m.

Friday, February 5, 2010

About the Book

Advance praise for BRILLIANT DISGUISES

"With this stunning debut novel, William Thornton joins the ranks of the mystic Christian writers of the past, such as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle. As a bonus, Brilliant Disguises is a great read, with enough plot twists to keep the reader up late, turning pages!"
- Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife

William Thornton makes his fiction debut with BRILLIANT DISGUISES, the tale of a man who poses so well as a Christian that he fools everyone - everyone, that is, except for himself and the One he cannot escape from. In the process, he seemingly works miracles but cannot satisfy the hunger inside himself to find out who he really is.

Thornton's novel concerns the life of Cameron Leon, a newly-hired worker for the Forster Foundation, a world-wide charitable organization led by a reclusive billionaire. To get the job, Cameron has to join a church. However, Cameron, still mourning the recent death of his brother Peter, decides he will only pretend to "get saved." In the process, he impersonates not only a Christian, but on occasion, his brother. Cameron continues to receive tearful phone calls from Peter's widow, Cecelia, who wants to hear her late husband's voice. Cameron, a born mimic like his brother, flawlessly impersonates him but feels the need for a personal kind of cleansing. Cameron discovers not only how many faces he has, but how many there are among the people around him. In the end, he finds he has been impersonating someone - or Someone - all along.

According to Thornton, BRILLIANT DISGUISES grew from a longing to see the inner life of a Christian in a fictional setting. But the only way to make such a familiar setting appear unfamiliar to Christian readers was to have the story told by someone posing as one. Thornton says, "Probably anyone who has attended an evangelical church, or any church for that matter, has a story of someone who volunteers for everything, is there for every service, has been a model of prayer and devotion for what seems like generations. It could be the Sunday School director or the lady who helps out in the kitchen or the organist. Then one Sunday, they come forward during the invitation and announce that they've never felt they were saved. I wondered how that could happen, and I figured it would help if we were dealing with a character who was a born mimic."

By turns comic and probing, dark and daring, BRILLIANT DISGUISES is about trying to hide behind the Light, and seeing things as they really are.


William Thornton is an award-winning writer who has been a newspaper reporter for the past 21 years. He teaches a Sunday School class and is a deacon in a Southern Baptist church. He also maintains a blog on Christian themes in religious fiction, non-fiction and popular culture. He lives in Alabama with his wife and daughter.

By William Thornton
with book discussion group guide and Bible study options
An Xlibris soft cover
Available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble.com, Books-a-million.com and www.brilliantdisguises.com

Brilliant Disguises - The First Chapter

Here's the first chapter of my novel, "Brilliant Disguises."

Profession of Faith


When I think back on the interview, it doesn’t seem that it was me sitting there in that office as much as somebody else. I suppose that was the whole point.


I had a similar feeling at my brother’s funeral. It was the sensation that I was a spectator, that I had stepped outside myself into some impassive, Elysian plain of existence and no longer had any control over what I was doing. Or what was happening, I should say. It wasn’t really a conscious decision — just the accumulation of a manic heartbeat and senses on a trip wire waiting for whatever might reveal itself in the next instant. I have never really understood how or why events reveal themselves like this. Perhaps that too is the whole point.


I was sitting in an office, yawning, still feeling like I had the night before — a feeling that I needed to be clean. In reality, I needed a new job. I had an interview just after lunch. Dr. Benjamin Forster of the Forster Foundation had an opening on the public relations wing of his empire and I wanted to be part of it. It easily paid twice what I was making, and I had the keen ability not to see any possible reason why they wouldn’t hire me, given my qualifications. That is, provided I got a good night’s sleep, which I didn’t.

The interviewer was Prescott — Charlie to his friends, though he didn’t make me feel like one — who identified himself as Forster’s adjutant but never quite defined what that position meant. I noticed hanging in a closet behind his desk a few suits that had just been dry cleaned, swathed in sheets of shining cellophane. I wondered if picking these up for his boss was part of the job description.

Prescott did not dress the part of what I would consider an adjutant. That is, unless the job description included no sense of fashion. The man wore a suit that accentuated his overly rounded belly, topping his ensemble off with a vulgar-looking belt buckle so shiny it must have been made of chrome. This made him look like the human equivalent of a Mack truck angling for respectability. He was a very tall man, which may have explained his ill-fitting clothes, but I would have presumed a man working for Forster would be more image conscious. I immediately wondered if I should have dressed down. On his desk, positioned for any visitor to be overwhelmed by it, was a large framed picture of a woman I learned later was Prescott’s wife, though it was natural to infer so from its prominence. On a wall near his desk were two classical Greek drama masks, with a happy face and a frowning one. Though they were meant to remind me of Sophocles and Euripides, I found myself thinking of the beginning of Three Stooges movies. How strange, the connections our minds can make.

Sitting there, waiting as Prescott looked over my resume, I realized I was wearing the same black suit that I had worn for Peter’s funeral. It still had flecks of dried dirt on the pants’ legs.


"Mr. Leon. Am I pronouncing that right?" he asked.

"Yes. Just like it’s spelled."

"Splendid." He used the word rather self-consciously, as though he wanted me to be impressed by it. "Everything seems to be in order here."

"Oh, good." I thought it might be better to act pleasantly surprised at his observation. Then I wondered if that might not sound too vain. No, I silently corrected myself, vain would be second-guessing a two-word response to a compliment during a job interview.

Prescott stood up. He must have been about six five, and the desk made him seem even more absurdly tall. His belt bucket hit the desk top, making a sound like a bullet ricochet in an Old West movie. "There’s just one question I have to ask you, Mr. Leon."


He looked mildly embarrassed. "I have to say that we’ve had your resume for more than a month and we’ve been very impressed with everything."


"I should let you know that very few people get this far. You wouldn’t believe how many apply for this position that either don’t have what it takes or wash out when we get to this point."

"I see." Or I was trying to. We hadn’t actually gotten to a point that I could see, at least one where someone would wash out.

"Do you feel comfortable? Can I get you anything?"

"I’m fine. Do I look uncomfortable?"

"Well, you do look a little tired at least. Troubled, maybe?"

My eyebrows arched involuntarily, and though I denied anything was wrong, Prescott could probably tell I was lying.

"I wouldn’t want you to feel ill at ease, especially in light of what I’m about to say." Prescott cleared his throat, came around to the other side of the desk and sat down. He looked embarrassed at first, then relaxed into something knowing and fatherly. "But there is one thing that isn’t covered in the resume." I had braced myself for what I thought he might say. I expected a short primer on the strange habits of my potential boss. Forster was largely known through his voice — he did a series of radio spots providing little homilies on how life could be lived more richly. They smacked of easy answers to difficult questions, bromides worn bare like borrowed clothes, but delivered in his sincere, booming, believing voice. He always wrapped with the same exhortation, almost ridiculous in its enthusiasm — "Have an exceptional day!" One didn’t really know what he looked like, but you guessed at some majestic, unassailable sincerity. What little else was known about him was tantalizing. Legend had it that Forster thought nothing of calling employees in the dead of night and asking the most outlandish tasks of them to be completed within hours.

But then, I’m used to that already, considering last night, I thought.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Mr. Leon…Cameron… can I call you Cameron?"

"Yes. Please."

"Cameron, have you ever been born again?"

It was at this point that whatever illusions of control I had over myself left me, for reasons I’m still not quite sure about. "Excuse me?"

"Born again." He repeated the two words slowly, in a grave voice but with an inappropriate smile.

"I’m not sure I follow," I said. I remember squinting and leaning forward in my chair, probably because I felt like I needed to do … something.

"Are you a Christian?"


I wanted to be sure. "A Christian?"


There is probably a moment in every job interview where the applicant realizes the secret agenda at the heart of the querying. The prospective boss relays through gesture or statement what the position entails, or what is expected of the would-be employee, or what kind of man the employer is, and the interviewee immediately tailors his gifts, his experience, his very life with neat scissor snips until a workable, passable garment emerges for inspection.

A more intelligent person than myself would probably have said something different from the next thing that came out of my mouth. "You mean, like, with that Jesus guy, right?"

"Yes!" he exclaimed, as a game show host might for a contestant who suddenly recalls the answer to a question. "That same guy. I presume you’ve heard of Christianity?"

As ridiculous as my question had been, he responded with an off-putting level of ernestness and an annoying acceptance of my flippancy at face value. I had expected him to be suitably offended, thus pleasing me. But he didn’t. And so we did this strange dance, with me alternating between the kind of self-interested lying to get a job that applicants routinely indulge in, punctuated by glib, sarcastic responses to questions I was sure were none of his business.

"Yes, yes, of course. Born again?" I said.

"I’m sorry. We’re sort of fundamentalist around here. It’s second nature to say it like that. It’s something, a term you might say we use to identify ourselves to ourselves."

"Sort of like a code word, you mean? Or a secret handshake?"

"Hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Cameron. What do you say?"

"I’m not quite sure what to say, really. If you mean God, I mean, I saw ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Twice." This was actually a lie. The second time I had wandered into the wrong theatre. It took a few minutes for me to realize it because I didn’t remember Tom Hanks’ hair being that long.

"Well, that’s a start, I suppose," Prescott said, in all earnestness. "I take it you do believe in God."

"Was that a prerequisite for the job?"

"You see, I told you not many people make it through this part of the process. I’ve seen people leave here…"

"I don’t see…"

Prescott held up his hand, nodding his head as if pleading for patience. "This is a foundation, Cameron, a multi-million dollar operation. A lot of money and effort goes into what we do, and we don’t want to waste the opportunity. But you must also realize this is a ministry. Mr. Forster believes heavily in a sense of mission. And that means that the job you’ve applied for carries, in a very real sense, some of the spirit of that …Spirit, if you take my meaning."

"I do," I said. I was lying again, but I suppose I wanted the job badly enough at that point and sensed it was ascending beyond my grasp.

"I would assume then, Mr. Leon…"

I didn’t like the way he lapsed back into the formal. "Cam, please…"

"Sorry, Cam. I would assume then that you’re not a Christian? Do you belong to a church?"

"Um, I gave some money to the United Way. Once."

"Do you remember how much it was?" Clearly, he wasn’t taking the bait.

I thought for a minute. Then I realized I had pledged to send money but never actually made out the check. I stayed quiet for a second until he gave up on getting an answer.

"You’re not a Christian."

"I did once get a Bible trivia question right when I watching ‘Jeopardy!’" I couldn’t quite remember what it was.

"You’re not a Christian," he repeated.

"Well, no, not as you define it."

"How do you define it, Cameron?"

"Well didn’t Jesus say, ‘Live and let live?’ That’s always been my motto."

Prescott never gave me the pleasure. "No, actually He never said anything like that."

I cleared my throat. "Why do you ask?"

Prescott began talking with his hands, gesturing like an after-dinner speaker. "I’ll be frank. Cameron, our benefactor, I’m sure you’re aware, is a very driven, very opinionated man. He feels strongly that if our work is to succeed, everyone must be of one mind, and one body."

"One body?"

"The body of Christ, I mean."


I should tell you that some of my responses to his questions were because of my lack of sleep. But I didn’t feign much of my ignorance. I don’t want you think of me as a ignorant man. I suppose what follows will convince you one way or another. Let me just say that the one remove of reality I was grappling with at that moment, the darkened glass I was looking through, if you will, kept me from associating what his words were with actual meanings. And as far as that moment was concerned, I didn’t truly know my own body, let alone Christ’s.

Maybe he figured this out from the expression on my face.

"I’m telling you, Cameron, that if you want this job, you need to go home and seriously think about your salvation."

I don’t think the look on my face changed.

Prescott rolled his eyes, like a man giving up at a game of charades. "I mean, you should go home, pray about this, and ask Jesus to come into your heart."

"I thought you said something about being born again. Now you’re talking about my heart?"

"It’s a figure of speech."

"Another code word?"

"It has very definite meaning."

"I would think so. I think I remember a song about somebody not being born is busy dying, or something like that. I don’t remember if it said anything about the heart. You want my heart born in Jesus, or Jesus born in my heart, or something… I’m still not getting it. I don’t have any medical training, either in cardiology or obstetrics. I thought my resume covered that."

Prescott shook his head, still not taking the bait, still not giving up on me. "You’re sure you’ve never heard of any of this?"

I yawned, and my hand went up to cover my mouth. My eyes went down to the floor. It seemed like a gesture of shame, even though I wasn’t sure what I needed to be ashamed about. "He who would distinguish the true from the false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false," I said, finally.

"Who said that?" he asked, knowing I had to be quoting somebody.


"Very good. Interesting that that you’re able to quote Spinoza but seemingly unacquainted with Christendom." So he could give as good as he got. That kept me from thinking too long on whether, after his prying, I really wanted this job after all.


I thought he might be about to ask me to leave. I finally said, "How do I do that? This born again thing."

"I don’t want to pressure you…"

"Oh, no. Not at all."

"I mean, I realize you want this job and everything."

"Well, I do, but I’m not sure what you want me to do."

"Come again?"

"You say you don’t want to pressure me, but you tell me I should pray about this. Is there something about me that you think is …evil?" I shifted in my chair because I was curious just how much this man knew about me, how much he could read from my face.

"No, not at all," he said.

"Well, you said something about me looking troubled."

"Right, right. No, look, I don’t think there’s anything evil about you, Cameron. I wouldn’t still be interested in you for the job if I did."

"But you still think I should…"

"I just know you’re a man."

"Yeah, even though I didn’t mention that on my resume either."

He forged on. "As a man, we’re all prone to the weaknesses of men. We struggle with ourselves. Within ourselves. We have things we aren’t proud of, things we can’t quite cope with. We all know there’s someone inside us, someone we know closer than anyone else, that we never can quite become. But in time we see all too clearly what we really are."

"I thought this was a public relations job…"

"It’s a big step, I know, but you’ll never regret it."

"You mean getting the job?"

He shook his head. "Cameron, like I said. Go home and think about it. Pray about it." He gestured again, as though he expected me to get up from my seat. Actually, he looked as uncomfortable as I probably felt.

"You’re just giving me a day on this?"

"How much time do you need?"

I looked at my watch for some unknown reason. "Today’s Friday, right? Alright, let me have the weekend."

"Fair enough. Three days is plenty of time."

I remember standing to shake his hand, though I don’t remember particularly wanting to. The whole thing was vaguely insulting. I still wasn’t sure where or what he expected me to do. It was obvious that what he wanted me to do was important to him at least, though I wasn’t sure why. He had given me vague instructions with an indeterminate goal and expected me to satisfy his requirements well enough to get the job he was supposedly offering me.


One of the great things about living in a democracy is that you can assemble a personal philosophy from the enduring ideas of the world, like someone pulling items from the shelves of a grocery. It’s not even necessary to understand the ideas or know what the words mean. They’re just words. They’re just ideas. And the people and circumstances behind them are just brand names, like Coke and Pepsi. If these ideas fail, you can be comforted by knowing they weren’t your ideas in the first place. And your own misinterpretation or willful ignorance is allowed under the Constitution. Mr. Leo Tolstoy, for example, told us that when we commit an act, any act, we are convinced we are doing it of our own free will, but examining it among the mass of mankind, we become convinced of that act’s inevitability. The more alone we are, the more unrestricted our possibilities might be. The more we are connected to others, the less free we are.

But whatever control I had over myself returned during that interview just long enough for me to ask Prescott, "They would be able to tell me what I needed to know in church, right?"

He gave me, for the first time, a skeptical eye. "It depends which church you go to."

"Tell me," I said, "Which church does Mr. Forster attend?"


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

In the time it takes you to read this post, an infinite amount of action passes seemingly without your noticing. The chest rises and falls with each breath. Blood courses through the body. Eyes blink. The body shifts, nervous energy makes the foot rock back and forth, the head moves, as do the eyes. And that's just for the individual. Time that is irrecoverable, used up like waste paper, looking for purpose and meaning.

Since the achievement of "Underworld" in 1997, Don DeLillo has focused more of his energy on a series of novella-like creations, and this theme of time - its passage, consumption, wastage, etc. - dominates them all. "Point Omega" can be taken as an anti-war message, a parable on the multiple meanings of existence, on the ability of mankind to make meaning for itself, but what spoke to me was its obsession with time.

"Point Omega" begins with a man in a gallery taking in "24 hour Psycho," a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" at two frames per minute, meaning that one viewing of the film would take an entire day. At that speed, the imperceptibly moving image begins to have more meanings than just those a low-budget slasher film made by a genius. "The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw," the narrator tells us. It's interesting that DeLillo chose "Psycho," even though there is an exhibition of the film at the Museum of Modern Art. David Thomson's book, "The Moment of 'Psycho,'" shows that the film is a veritable funhouse of meaning and imagery. "Psycho" is concerned with murders created by a monster, and what they mean - crimes of passion, not profit.

Most of the action of the book has to do with film, though. The documentarian Finley wants to make a movie about Richard Elster, a "wise man" academic like Ravelstein called in by the Bush Administration in the run-up to the Iraq War in order to give the enterprise some intellectual heft. Elster, naturally, seems haunted by this (naturally, because rarely is a character in a DeLillo novel ever not "haunted" by something) and a need to escape into the desert. Finley's wish is to do, not a "Fog of War" film examination, but a relentless interview with just the face on the screen, offering explanations. Later on, after Finley has had time to emotionally bond with Elster's daughter Jessie, she disappears into the desert and Elster must cope with the loss.

"Point Omega," like "The Body Artist," "Cosmopolis" and "Falling Man," at times resembles not so much a narrative as a series of declarative character statements in the guise of narrative. Given DeLillo's politics, Elster is an enigmatic figure who must bear the pain of his complicity in the war. "There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create," he tells Finley. But the events are cold. Elster may bond emotionally with Jessie, but we see little evidence of it. All of these people seem exhausted by events.

Or by time, perhaps? "Time is enormous," Elster says, later restating that "every lost moment is the life." In a few sentences of dubious logic, he makes clearer, perhaps, the author's intent: "Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There's an endless counting down... when you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what's left is terror. This is the thing that literature was meant to cure. The epic poem, the bedtime story."

The book's cover gives us the infinite image, the eight turned sideways, an endless loop that circles back to itself. And that is the dubious logic - because the city built to remove time from nature only restates time and nature in all its terror. Buildings fade and fall. Cities age, rot, are rebuilt only to rot again. Meaning, like time, is elusive. The disappearance of Jessie, and the lack of resolution, may disappoint a reader looking for an explanation, but DeLillo isn't interested in explanations, because in his view, life isn't. And that lack of explanation is deadly, just as deadly as a war that a man may plan from the safety of an office thousands of miles away, unaware of where his ideas will take others. "The omega point has narrowed, here and now, to the point of a knife as it enters the body. All the man's grand themes funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not."

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Perfect Day for Salinger

Today's news of the death of J.D. Salinger will no doubt bring many tributes to Holden Caufield's creator, who famously hasn't published a word since the New Yorker printed the mammoth, "Hapworth 16, 1924," a letter from the ridiculously precocious seven-year-old Seymour Glass. Since that June 19, 1965 issue, not a word. Salinger's sole printed output is one novel, one short story collection, and two collections of four novellas.

Obituaries will dwell on Salinger's most enduring work, "The Catcher In the Rye," the story of Holden Caufield's extended escape to New York City. I came to Salinger, and "Catcher" late. Instead of discovering the teenage protagonist in my adolescence, I was a 26-year-old on the eve of my wedding. Why so late? Those of you who remember the eighties will recall the almost mystical stigma that briefly hovered over "Catcher" after John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, and then Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley, were arrested with copies of the book, Chapman going so far as to read passages in court as he was sentenced. There was something about the book, in it's simple scarlet cover, it seemed, that drove people nuts.

By the time I finally got around to reading it, I was fully aware that it wasn't some voodoo novel with the power to unhinge, but the imaginings of a frustrated teenager on the borders of adulthood, enjoying the first flush of freedom. At times, he enjoys himself. At others, he seems disturbed that there isn't more to it. He has the reaction of a child - a child who opens a gift on Christmas Day, only to find it's a pair of socks.

But my deeper connection has been with Salinger's Glass family stories, the most famous of which are "Franny" and "Zooey," collected together when finally published in book form. In the Glass family characters, Salinger fixates on the lingering ghost of Seymour, who killed himself in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Seymour appears as a golden child - indeed, all the Glass children, of course, were stars of a radio program called "It's a Wise Child." Seymour is an almost messianic persona who grows into an awkward adult, his wedding the source of anxiety in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." For example, Seymour is remembered as having said "that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next." By the end of his published output, Salinger strayed far from conventional narrative fiction and created characters capable of long, philosophical digressions and investigations, with only the individual character tics there to urge the reader onward. Stories occasionally take on a mystical Christian property, especially "Franny" and "Zooey," which both deal with the concept of the Jesus Prayer.

"When you don't see Jesus for exactly what he was, you miss the whole point of the Jesus Prayer. If you don't understand Jesus, you can't understand his prayer — you don't get the prayer at all, you just get some kind of organized cant. Jesus was a supreme adept, by God, on a terribly important mission."

Salinger's understanding of Christianity is unmistakably Eastern, with its emphasis on the meditative aspects of faith as a path to secret, inner knowledge. This almost Buddhist conception makes his characters seem distant, even as they are teenagers and young adults trying to impress with profanity and borrowed erudition. What we know of Salinger's private life points to him as a searcher - someone who experimented with Christian Science and Dianetics, among many other things. But his use of religion in his stories seems to copy the kind of consciousness with which teens approach the supernatural - intrigued by the possibility of forbidden or unspoken knowledge, attracted by the idea of wisdom, and a simultaneous wish to cast off dead ritual and take up intriguing practices.

But in the Glass stories, we get a picture of Christ which has had lingering effect, both good and bad, in popular culture. We get a slightly aloof, all-knowing Christ who is the greatest adept in the world, capable of overflowing love but seemingly detached from our knowing Him. We pursue, but we are not guaranteed of overtaking him. We wrestle not with an angel, but with the shadow of a certainty.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Interview with Syncopator Familias

My friend Greg Richter did an interview with me for his blog, Syncopator Familias, about "Brilliant Disguises." You can read it here.

You can also get a copy at my signing Sunday at Mountain Brook's Emmet O'Neal Library at 2 p.m. See more about that here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Nod from The Gadsden Times

The Gadsden Times did a notice on "Brilliant Disguises" last week before our signing at Gadsden Christian Bookstore. Here it is:

The Gadsden Times
Friday, January 8, 2010

Thornton to be signing debut novel
By Matthew Martin
Times Features Editor
To everyone around Cameron Leon, he is a perfect man. But instead of being perfect and truthful to those around him, Leon has many faces.
That's the world author William Thornton has created with his fiction debut, “Brilliant Disguises,” which was released about a month ago.
In his book, Thornton's protagonist is leading a double life, pretending to be a Christian.
Leon gets hired for a job on one condition: that he join a church. But instead of really joining the church, he pretends to get “saved.”
His act becomes so believable he starts to deceive himself and winds up hollow and longing.
Thornton, a Gadsden native, said several things inspired him.
“One was how, at times in church, you'll find a person who comes forward to make a profession of faith who has been a fixture there for years, sometimes decades,” Thornton said. “They may be the Sunday School superintendent, or the lady who works in the kitchen for meals, or a volunteer in the nursery who never misses a Sunday. Everyone in the church knows them and looks up to them, yet they make that walk down the aisle and say they've never felt like they were saved. They may very well be a Christian, but doubts are eating away at them.
“I was interested in how that could happen.”
Even though the novel is considered a Christian book and being sold in Christian bookstores, the appeal has a broad base.
Through Leon's self-made life and the psychology that comes with that, the personal shortcomings become universal. Thornton said that is what drew him to write the book.
Thornton finished the book about two years ago. He said it only took him about six months to write the novel.
He is a former staff writer for The Gadsden Times who now works for the Birmingham News.
He will be signing copies of the book at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Gadsden Christian Bookstore on Broad Street.
It can be purchased there, as well as at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million Web sites. Copies also can be bought at brilliantdisguises.com.

The book also got mentioned in Atlanta Christian Family Magazine last month and can be seen on page 8 here.