Here is a book that has everything going for it:
• A writer of significant skill, heart, and passion for his craft
• A powerful central premise
• Superb real-life material to draw upon
• An often absorbing no-nonsense writing style …
… and yet … well, I just keep asking myself, “Why?”
Why, for example, the choice to present this as fiction? There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a novel based on real-life experiences, but this piece begs to be a memoir, not a novel.
Before I rave on, a brief synopsis: An American ex-patriot, David Thompson, is living in Japan, the final destination of a man who chose self-exile after opting for the roll of conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He was drafted into the Army, but refused to fight, and so was thrown into a military prison. They tried to break him, brainwash him and reprogram him – but he outlasts them. They spit back into society as an “undesirable.”
This prompts Thompson to launch himself on a life of wandering the world, much of the time in a pot and LSD-soaked haze. Since he has been robbed of his fundamental self-identity as a “normal American” his journey is a search for self-meaning and perhaps to find or build a new identity. Along the way he encounters some of the most dangerous and depressingly hopeless enclaves on the globe, such as the horrifying, filthy, disease-ridden poverty in the darkest allies of Calcutta.
But Thompson eventually finds a kind of secular salvation in that he lands a stable job teaching English in Japan, finds a loving, beautiful wife, and achieves middle class mediocrity – albeit not in America-- but among a modern culture which accepts him.
The novel plays out when Thompson and his wife take a vacation trip to Europe partly so Thompson can retrace some of the pain of his past, and also reconnect with a kind guru-friend figure – Thomas Knorr – only to find that Knorr has just died.
|ROBERT W. NORRIS|
The problem for me: The character David Thompson is a molecular-thin veneer sprayed with an atomizer over the identity of the author himself, Robert W. Norris.
Yes, yes, yes I realize there are mystical elements and events, such as when Thompson-Norris meets none other than a character from Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf in an Amsterdam pot den – the mysterious Pablo. Pablo from Steppenwolf supplies Thompson-Norris with hallucinogenic mushrooms, a bit of advice and a kind of magic chess set.
So some might say: “That’s why this has to be presented as fiction; the real Norris could not have met a fictional character from another author’s book in a work of nonfiction.”
Robert W. Norris could indeed have met Pablo in Amsterdam and that meeting would have been every bit as real and legitimate as if he had met any other living human being. That Pablo comes in the form of imagination (or even a drug-induced reverie) does not make him one iota less authentic.
If you don’t think so, then I invite you to find the nearest engineer and tell him that he is no longer allowed to use imaginary numbers (i) in calculus equations when he is designing some machine that will have real application in the objective, physical world. Making use of that which is “unreal” or "imaginary" has never bothered mathematicians, scientists and engineers – why should it bother an author, or memoirist?
Or maybe the author hoped to shield the real people he encountered in life? However, the skilled memoirist would have no problem finessing these kinds of details – but enough, I’ll drop it. The author chose to make this a work of fiction – I’ll honor that while finding it vexing.
Several other aspects of this work also seemed jarring and incongruous to me. For example:
When Thompson-Norris swallowed the powerful magic mushrooms supplied to him by shamanic figure Pablo, I strapped on my seatbelt and prepared myself for a Terrence McKenna-like or perhaps William S. Burroughs-like journey into the disturbing strange and intense – but instead, I found myself being treated to a breezy scene far more akin to something out of Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” or perhaps his short story, “The Sound of Summer Running.”
The hallucinogenic mushroom prompts him to relive with exceptional vividness a joyful time from his childhood when he became immersed in that most profoundly spiritual-American game, baseball. He shares this sun-soaked carefree time with his boyhood best friend, Damian (inspired by Hesse’s “Demian?”).
But why should this completely normal, wonderful, decent and absolutely non-dangerous re-lived memory need be induced by a powerful magic mushroom supplied by a shamanic figure? I confess: I don’t get it.
I will say, however, that I loved the way the blissful baseball vignette transitions into the disturbing accounts of his journeys through India, Turkey and Iran – it makes for a brutal contrast that is literary gold. (So much about this novel is excellent.)
But, but ... there are many other “Whys” I might air – such as why include that baffling opening shemp (I borrow a jargon term from cinema out of desperation) – which quietly dissipates as something barely necessary. It is also mistake to call this an homage to Hesse and Lowry. These magnificent novelists influence and inform the book yes, but -- now I'm just quibbling -- and I've gone on too long already. So here’s my bottom line:
This has the making of an excellent memoir – indeed, it is a memoir -- a significant and important piece, possibly even a “Great American” memoir. What men like Norris did in adopting the mantel of conscientious objector is an act of tremendous heroism and commands my utmost, undying respect.
The writing is often brilliant and engaging, even absorbing.
However, presenting this document as fiction drops a clog into the whole system of the book, knocking it off kilter in more ways than one. Making us try to believe this is fiction is a crippling distraction. That's because fiction requires the reader to adopt that “willing suspension of disbelief” -- which in this case in untenable.
We never believe in a fictional character named David Thompson, but we do believe in Robert W. Norris. He's the real deal.
Ken Korczak is the author of THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH