Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Rising

Superpowers. We're fascinated by them.  We buy books (usually comic books) and flock to movies that feature humans with extraordinary strength, or speed, or mobility, or whatever. The image of the super-man, whatever “super” might mean, rivets our imagination. (I discuss this in an earlier post.)

To me, our appreciation of these imaginary characters seems largely vicarious: we enjoy superheroes because we like to imagine what we'd do if we had such powers. This may partially explain the growing phenomenon of costumed play (“cosplay”), where participants don costumes and attend conferences and gatherings “in character”, enabling them to indulge the fantasy that we can be immortal, or super-strong, or possess some other super-human attribute that lifts us above the mundane lot of common life.

One thing notably lacking in this view of superpowers is a genuine apprehension of what life would be like for the possessor of such powers. Oh, the better of such tales, such as Iron Man and Spiderman, at times attempt to grapple with the humanity of the heroes and the struggles that accompany, and at times are caused by, their distinctive condition. And though these aspects of the stories do add depth to the characters, the consumers of such fare can only tolerate so much angst-ridden introspection before returning to the exercise of the superpower to resolve matters (this is, after all, a superhero story.)

As a new exception to this trend, I recommend The Rising (Ignatius Press, 2014) by Robert Ovies.  It's a hard book to categorize, containing elements of a supernatural thriller, a conspiracy novel, and a family drama. But in the final analysis, it's a book about a boy with what we'd call a “superpower”, and what effect that has on his life and the lives of those around him.  The plot revolves around an ordinary  nine-year-old boy named Christopher Joseph Walker, or C.J., who discovers that he has the power to touch people and heal them – even if they are not only dead, but embalmed. There seems nothing extraordinary about C.J.  He doesn't display any unusual piety or interest in spiritual things. He lives with his mother who is divorced, and they attend a parish in suburban Detroit. When attending a viewing for a family friend who succumbed to swift-moving cancer, C.J. touches her and says, “Be well.” It's only a wish, he doesn't mean anything by it and certainly doesn't expect anything to change.  But then the lady proceeds to begin healing right there in the coffin, to the point that she's animate within ten minutes and is completely restored to health within a day.

Ovies handles this astonishing event with commendable realism. At first the incident is suspected to be incompetence by the medical staff. Then doubt is cast on the funeral director. It takes a while for the truth to come out that C.J. was responsible. This delay gives Ovies time to develop the protective relationship that C.J.'s mother Lynn has with the boy.  To the impatient reader this may be frustrating, but it has a point – in fact it is the point – in the story.  Her estranged husband, the ambitious but irresponsible Joe, is still engaged in the boy's life, but Lynn is the primary caretaker – a status that will prove critical as the story unfolds.

As the truth becomes slowly apparent, various tests are arranged to verify that C.J.'s incredible ability is legitimate. Another dead and embalmed person is touched and healed. They learn that C.J.'s gift is not restricted to the dead – he touches some severely ill people and wishes them to be well, and they recover miraculously. (Incidentally, this brings up one of my few quibbles with the book – it keeps referring to the dead returning to life as “resurrection”. “Resuscitation” would be the more appropriate term, since the parties will die again.  C.J.'s gift is that of “super-healing”, working on not only diseased but necrotic tissue.)  The secret of who is responsible for these wonders is at first kept between Lynn, Joe, and their parish priest, Fr. Mark. Lynn is cautious but Joe dreams of the riches he will (finally) make due to his son's power.  To Joe, this is The Break he's been hoping for his entire life. But then, due to the duplicity of one of the desperate characters in the story, C.J.'s identity and abilities are made public.

This is when the story makes a sharp departure from the typical “superpower” story. The expectable pattern from here would be C.J. gaining increasing notoriety, doing greater and greater wonders with his powers, going to Impressive Places to meet Important People, perhaps encountering some Nefarious Opposition leading to a Dramatic Confrontation, but emerging as an Important Person in his own right.

Instead, though we certainly have increasing notoriety, we also have Lynn responding with skepticism and reticence to expose C.J. to the forces wanting to make use of him. This may seem odd to the reader, especially given the nature of C.J.'s gift. Super-healing? How can that be anything but good? For Pete's sake, get him down to the ICUs and cancer wards and trauma centers where he can start helping people! It's not like it costs him anything, and it could do a world of good!  What's the problem?

Here is where I think Ovies hits the target dead-center. Lynn, with a mother's canny intuition, discerns the true issue: will her son be reduced to an object to be used by others for their purposes?  She appreciates the good C.J. could potentially do, but she doesn't want him objectivized in the process.  Given the dramatic and powerful nature of his gift, she knows that's exactly what could happen if someone doesn't look out for him. Even Joe is bedazzled by the prospect of what C.J.'s gift could mean, his (legitimate) paternal concern for the boy's true welfare assuaged by the fact that a healing gift this powerful can do only good.

This becomes the axis of tension for the entire book, as Lynn seeks to protect C.J. and extricate him from the maelstrom of expectations that swirl around their lives.  Ovies skillfully weaves a tale without any “bad guys”, only people responding predictably in the presence of such unexpected potential. Oh, there's a mob boss – but he's just a grieving father in danger of losing his beloved son. The hard-nosed lawyer? Just trying to protect his employer and friend from heartbreak.  The cardinal? At worst misguided in his response to this phenomenon. Even the cardinal's ambitious friend, who does the worst thing in the story, isn't malicious, just overreaching in his hopes and desires – though he does epitomize the tendency to objectivize young C.J.

I won't reveal any spoilers, because you should enjoy the book for yourself. Redemption comes from an unexpected corner, so in a sense that resolves the story's main tension. But many questions are left unanswered, and indeed unaddressed. Where did C.J.'s power come from? Why was it given? Is it gone? The people who were resuscitated – what happened to them while they were dead? Did Lynn make the best choice in insulating C.J., or was he given the gift to be used?  There's no tidy wrapping up of these knotty questions, which is probably as it should be.

As a story, particularly as a first story, Ovies did a wonderful job with this book. Perhaps he put a bit too much time into the numerous scenes portraying how much Lynn loved C.J. and would protect him, but not so much as to bog down the story and certainly no more than one might expect in a debut work.  There are a few copy editing points (hopefully you'll miss them – I didn't), but if The Rising is Robert Ovies initial effort, I'm looking forward to his future works.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tobit's Dog

I try to order new novels from my publisher whenever I can afford to, partly to encourage them to keep publishing fiction and partly out of solidarity with my fellow authors.  Sadly, the results are sometimes mixed, but lately I managed to get two real winners which I deeply enjoyed. The first of these is Tobit's Dog, by Michael Richard.

This book had to have been an adventure to write. It is quite up-front about the fact that it is a “retelling” of the story of Tobit from the Bible (you'll need a complete Bible to find it.)  Though some might carp about “not being original” or some such post-Romantic nonsense, this didn't put me off in the least.  None of us really tells any truly original stories – everything is but a recasting and re-presenting of stories we've heard time and again. The only question I had was, how well did Mr. Richards retell the story of Tobit?

The answer is, “dang well”. First and foremost, Tobit's Dog is a rollicking good read. Siting the story in the American South just prior to the Second World War was genius.  The story of Tobit itself, with those Bible-era people with the Bible-era names and circumstances, is hard for we moderns to appreciate.  Portraying Tobit as a black man during the Jim Crow days subtly but powerfully brings home just what life must have been like for Jews during their exile in the greater Middle East.  Richard skillfully translates thematic elements from the original story into the new setting, making them not just believable, but easy to relate to. The story is engaging and fast-moving, with personal drama, tension, a bit of mystery, tragedy, and redemption all flowing in a thoroughly enjoyable stream.

Michael Richards is a very skillful writer. He draws the reader in effortlessly, creating believable situations and empathetic characters that make you want to follow along, to see what will happen next (even the durn mule!)  The story has characters, not two-dimensional caricatures. Nothing is strained or forced. Things happen and people respond because that's what would happen next, and that's how that character would respond, not simply because that's what needs to happen next in the plot. (As an author myself I can really appreciate this – one of the big struggles to keep a story authentic to itself is keeping the events and characters internally consistent.)  He also gracefully folds in elements from the original tale in such a believable manner that you find yourself wondering how he's going to pull off the next one! (Look for the catfish.)

But – believable? With an angel as a protagonist? Richards pulls it off, his Ace Redbone subtly played, with only hints and glimpses of the hidden reality.  I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' observation that everyone can recount some event in their life that they would call “rum” or “curious” - never fully comprehended, but part of their experience.  We see the negative of that from time to time, even in this story which alludes to intergenerational abuse, official corruption, secret murder, and brutal suicide.  Is it that hard to believe that there are also good forces slipping about in the shadows, nudging here and strengthening there? Indeed, Ace Redbone's most prominent role is in support of the humans he encounters – to encourage the good, roadblock the evil, offer hope to those on the edge of despair (some take it, some don't.) The interplay between this mysterious presence and the humans in the story is skillfully told – even to the point that at a critical juncture his power is subdued until the human releases it by an act of fierce courage.

This is a hard tale to categorize. Human drama? Mystery? Supernatural thriller? Quirky Gothic? It defies pigeonholing. I recommend you get a copy and judge for yourself.

I've heard it increasingly said of late that the problem with the modern world isn't that it doesn't have enough information, or even think clearly enough, but that it listens to the wrong stories.  Before we are deceived by wrong facts or misled by poor logic, our imaginations are corrupted by false tales.  We need to fill our hearts and imaginations with true stories. Tobit's Dog is such a story (reasonably enough, given its original source). It includes evil – horrendous evil – but tells the triumph of the good in a believable way.  Not without struggle and sorrow, but never without hope. That's a story our world needs to hear more often.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Welcoming God's Blessings - or rejecting them

Within the last eleven months we've married off three of our children. Their spouses are all wonderful people, the families are all tremendous, and we're delighted in all of them. But in the midst of the beauty and love, I heard something that caused me to ponder, and ultimately saddened me.

The thing itself was beautiful and wonderful: the solemn Nuptial Blessing pronounced over the the couples as part of the Wedding Mass.  I imagined it was a delight to the celebrating priests to pronounce it over the couples, knowing that they were entering into the sacrament with clear-eyed awareness of what they were doing and full-hearted intention of following through with their whole lives.  These couples, at least, received the blessing in its fullness, accepting all the grace that came with it to help them with the wondrous burden of Holy Matrimony.

All of the weddings had the Nuptial Blessing, but at two of the Masses the full, “long-form” of the blessing was pronounced, during which we all prayed for the couples and then the priest read the full blessing, which included the following text:

...may they be blessed with children, 
and prove themselves virtuous parents, 
who live to see their children's children.

Someone as familiar with the Old Testament as I am will recognize and appreciate how this draws from places like Psalm 128, and is implicit in so many blessings found throughout salvation history. This summarizes God's desire for the human family: fertility, long life, and intergenerational blessing.  When things go God's way, this is what is seen: couples lovingly welcoming the children God sends, and then raising them and seeing them raise children of their own, all within the framework of loving families. Ellen and I have certainly seen this in our lives.

But even as I heard this, I considered a bitter incongruity in our current age.  In our pro-life work, and ministering to many women over the years who've had abortions, I'm keenly aware of a cruel fact: many times women are pressured into abortion by their own family, often their own parents.  Think about that, especially in light of the line from the Nuptial Blessing.

Grandparents are pressuring to have their own grandchildren killed.

How much further from God's plan can you get?

I'm currently reading the wonderful book Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson.  The whole thing is great, but I'm particularly intrigued by how well they spell out the differences in outlook between the ancient cultures, especially Hebrew, and other cultures like the Hellenistic, or our own modern times.  People in ancient cultures saw themselves much more embedded in their society and family (which were usually the same thing). They knew where they came from, and their descendants were extremely important to their effective immortality. Childlessness was the worst of conditions, and having many descendants was the greatest thing to be desired (getting to see them was even better – see Genesis 48.)

But cultures steeped in atomic individualism, such as the Hellenistic culture, or our own, cannot grasp the importance of this. To us, individual success is the pivotal thing. Parents want to “succeed”, with “success” being defined almost exclusively in terms of economic prosperity and worldly comfort, and the best thing they could wish for the children was more of that. Hence the urgency of getting into a good college and graduating well and nailing down that all-important first job.  Unexpected pregnancies are a hindrance to that, so those have to be swept aside.

But listening with “ancient ears”, as when hearing a blessing pronounced over your own children that has echoed down through the millennia, makes one think of the spiritual consequences of our modern actions. If the blessing of children, and living to see them to the third or even the fourth generation, is a good which the Lord Himself has pronounced supreme, then what must be the spiritual fallout of grandparents so rejecting their own offspring that they're willing to snuff out their lives?  If one is the wish of heaven, what can the other be but the very ideal of hell?

I rejoice for my children, the more fully because I know they all agreed with that blessing and accepted it with a wholehearted joy (in fact, two of them are now expecting – the third, it's too early to tell!)  But with a heavy heart I had to wonder what the spiritual effect is of so many grandparents so rejecting the blessing of grandchildren that they're willing to pour out their blood on the altar of Moloch just to have the “fulfilled life” which that terrible idol so deceptively promises.