I recently had occasion to read Tom Doran's second venture into publication, Terrapin. I reviewed his first work, Toward the Gleam, in May 2011, and found it overall a good read – though even Doran himself admits the premise a little fantastic. Gleam is an example of a sub-genre which I call “Inklings fan-fiction”, which may not appeal to all.
Fortunately, with Terrapin Doran moves into what is more clearly familiar territory for him – the mystery – and it is a wise move. First off, it's a great story, especially if you're a mystery fan. Mysteries aren't my first choice of genre, but I can appreciate a decent one. My wife is far more of a mystery aficionado, and she enjoyed it as a story, ranking at the upper end of well written mysteries – maybe not quite Christie or Sayers, but certainly well above average. Doran seems to be getting more comfortable behind his typewriter.
The book is really two stories: one a current-day murder mystery involving a group of men who are lifelong friends, and the other about the growing-up years of those same friends in Terrapin Township, Michigan during the late 1970s. Apparently this flashback motif is not uncommon in mysteries, with the earlier portion of the tale providing backstory for the modern portion. I must admit that at times I thought the growing up portion dragged a bit, but it was well written, with sympathetic characters, and it did move steadily toward its conclusion.
Rather than provide a plot synopsis, I encourage readers to try Terrapin for themselves. If my wife's reaction is any indicator, lovers of mysteries will at least appreciate, if not richly enjoy, the book. What I want to address is a question that will undoubtedly occur to readers who know the publisher, Ignatius Press, as a leading name in Catholic publishing. When they finish Terrapin, they may find themselves asking, “What was so 'Catholic' about that?” Those who expect “Catholic” fiction to involve priests, or Vatican intrigues, or even a strong religious theme, may be disappointed. Aside from some passing mentions of attending church, the only thing approaching a religious “event” occurs on the final page, and even then it isn't much. What is a publisher like Ignatius doing publishing ordinary mysteries?
Herein lies the strength of Terrapin, and I'm grateful that Ignatius took the risk of publishing it. C.S. Lewis and others pointed out that the key to rebuilding a Christian culture was not inserting explicitly Christian themes into non-religious arenas such as entertainment and politics, but that devout Christians should engage these arenas as part of their everyday work, bringing their Christian world view to bear on the problems and challenges found there. After all, a good portion of the problems arising from places like the entertainment industry is that those working there are operating out of a non-Christian mindset (as I point out.) If Christian artists are to reclaim the culture, they must do it as good artists expressing their Christian outlook through their art.
This is what Doran pulls off with subtlety and skill. His protagonist, Dennis, is what our culture would consider a “decent fellow”, but there's nothing explicitly religious about him. Turns out that he and his band of friends, who are more regular guys, have a mischievous history with an ominously dark edge. The growing-up part of the tale shows them moving from simple pranks to some deeds that are outright harmful. Dennis himself comes across as something like moral Play-Dough: his character isn't wicked or vindictive, but he can be pressured into things, and seems to lack a firm moral compass.
This is not for lack of guidance. His widowed father, identified only as TA, is the quiet presence who stands in the background of the entire story – not just the growing up portion, but the current-day setting, by which time he's deceased. TA is an understated character, seemingly to the point of insignificance, but as the complex tale unfolds, it becomes clear that he's the person around whom the whole tale revolves. In a sense, the story is about Dennis remembering that he's TA's son – a fact which he'd essentially forgotten.
From the outset it was clear to me that TA was important, and I was almost frustrated by how quietly he was played. He seemed almost passive in the face of Dennis' increasingly destructive shenanigans, providing quiet suggestions and a calm presence rather than firm direction and severe consequences. Perhaps that was just the father in me responding (“If that had been my son, I'd have...”), but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that TA's handling of his son was neither negligence nor incompetence.
For one thing, the flashback portion of the story opens when Dennis is in his early teens, moving into an age when a father's direct hand doesn't weigh as heavily as it does in younger years. The youngster's attention is focused outward, more to friends and other influences, and a wise father will be more subtle in his attempts to influence behavior.
Furthermore, there is a fault line in the father-son relationship: the tragic accident that killed TA's wife and other son some years before. This not only leaves the home wounded and both parties emotionally damaged, but causes friction between TA and Dennis over the question of resolution. The fatal accident was a hit-and-run, and Dennis becomes convinced that more could have done to seek out the perpetrator and bring him to justice. TA is convinced that there would be no purpose to such an effort; that forgiving and moving on is the best course. This difference between them is more important than it first seems (in more ways than one), and the rift becomes a root of estrangement between the young Dennis and his father.
As the story unfolds and Dennis learns more about his past, it becomes clear that in their working-class neighborhood in Terrapin Township, TA was more than just his father. He counseled his neighbors, consoled the grieving, welcomed the stranger, corrected the errant, and even gracefully dealt with the improper advances of a tormented woman. This blue-collar man, bereaved and struggling with his own son, was the yeast that leavened his neighborhood, the quiet light that shone in the gathering moral darkness in which he lived. He didn't preach (not even to his son), but simply was the presence of Christ.
I believe this is the genius of the story, because it is so true to life. Very few of us are called to share our faith by preaching to big audiences, or writing for wide readerships, or broadcasting from coast to coast. But all of us are called to be the salt and light of Christ right where we are, with the people we rub elbows with in our daily lives. We are called to “preach” to them by being Christ to them, not just with niceness and platitudes but with sacrifice, suffering right beside them when it would be much easier just to sign a Hallmark card and leave it at the door. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is the sort of ministering TA did to all who came across his path, if they would accept it.
Here is another point of subtle genius: at first blush, it seems that Dennis has rejected his heritage. He's successful in the worldly sense, being a tenured professor at a major university with a home in a nice neighborhood and all the trappings, but there's little in his life that reflects the ideals of his father. Yet that is part of the point: Dennis “shallowed out”. For all his learning and temporal success, he doesn't have the depth of his blue-collar father. Where TA was a quiet but positive influence in the lives of those around him, Dennis just has annual reunions with the friends of his youth. His marriage is sterile, his career mundane. Judging from Dennis, one could conclude that TA failed in his childraising, but it becomes clear that it was Dennis who walked away from what was offered him.
Terrapin is a complex and at times uncomfortable story. There are no quick fixes, no tidy resolutions, no magical redemptions. There is progress, but there are also struggles and misunderstandings and setbacks. But again, this is true to life. The resolution of the story is a sharp lesson to Dennis that TA was very right about some crucial things, but how much Dennis will be changed by that lesson is left unanswered. There are glimmers of hope, but that's all the reader is given. In that sense, there is much in Terrapin that many of us can relate to.