About once a year among the more than 100 books I read per year there is always one that vividly stands out to receive “Ken’s Crash and Burn Award.” This is for books which start out with extreme promise, but then veer disastrously off course, never to recover.
In the case of PHERICK MORTON: A LIFE AND BEYOND, author PETER MESSMORE was cruising toward a rave review through the first third of the book, but then the narrative gets utterly lost, and the reader is confronted with one downright absurdity after another.
The author does a terrific job of creating unique, believable and nuanced characters who are instantly interesting. He embeds them in themes that promise to be rich in possibilities -- the conflict of fundamentalist religious beliefs confronting the world of hard rational science devoid of spirit -- in this case, super-advanced robotics.
To add even more flavor we have a background clash of a tough-as-nails international union boss striving to organize “the working class” set against the lofty world of corporate and scientific elites.
But then it all devolves into a miasma of soporific detail. The author attempts to leverage what is essentially a biography of a fictional character to drive the narrative, which is no substitute for an actual plot. There is an attempt to keep us interested by killing off a major character every 40 pages, or so, and the author adds a couple of soap-opera-like twists, but it all falls flat.
There is scene after scene that ends up having no bearing on the ultimately vague conclusion the author has in store.
For example, we get niggling and inexplicable diversions wherein the character obsesses about a marketing logo for his robotics company. There is a pointless detailing the kind of domestic cleaning robots he plans to build (you know, like the Roomba, which has already been around for more than 10 years, though this is the year 2030). Then there is the agonizing description of the fancy, pretentious house Pherick is building; the details of this clog the narrative like so much flotsam washed up to lay dead on the page.
Pherick Morton himself is a creepy character in many ways. For example, he is obsessed with genetic purity. There is a scene where he and his wife are consulting with a genetic specialist in their quest to birth a perfect child via a surrogate mother. It's like something out of a ghoulish eugenics training manual.
It would be kind to describe Pherick as a morally ambiguous character. An unkind reviewer might peg him as a self-absorbed ego maniac who easily rationalizes his use of illicitly-gained wealth -- as in when Pherick’s father supplies him with smuggled blood diamonds, some of which Pherick promptly fashions into a necklace to hang at the throat of his beloved wife. He also has one cut to serve as her engagement ring.
Blood diamonds are called so because they fund weapons procurement for brutal war lords in Africa. The results is the violent deaths of countless innocent people, including women and children. They are often obtained via child slave labor -- since Pherick is supposed to be a genius, he should know this -- he knows how his father obtained the booty -- yet he chooses to use these diamonds as his ultimate symbol of love.
He also trades illicit diamonds to pay for his brother’s brain surgery -- rather than paying medical bills the way the rest of us do -- through hard work, our own resources, or with a legitimate appeal to society. But not Pherick. He rationalizes by promising to give an amount equal to his dirty gains to charity at some later time -- you know, after all his own needs and material goals have been taken care of first.
Pherick’s conception of spirituality is fantastically bland.
Even though he receives visitations from no one less that Jesus himself while meditating in a cave in Israel, these visions do little to alter his ambitions to make gobs of money -- he buys houses, cars and the sundry material creature comforts the “real Jesus” would have found anathema.
Toward the end of the book, Pherick has earned a half-billion dollars, enabling him to retire in luxurious ease. Thus he is able to focus on his spiritual quest. He endeavors to formulate an enlightened philosophy -- but what we are eventually presented with is a warmed over interpretation of Gnosticism which anyone could glean from Wikipedia.
Pherick also establishes what is portrayed as a cutting-edge, new kind of religion free of dogma and hierarchical structure, which has nothing on the Unitarian Universalist model (and many others) that have already been around for centuries.
Most of the action is set in the future about 20 years hence, but the author has no feel for creating a world that feels any different from our own. Except for the occasional appearance of a smartphone, the action here could just as easily take place in the 1950s as the year 2030.
The final scene depicts Pherick in the afterlife, a realm depicted in a way that is amazingly mundane, clumsy and absurd. It's ridiculous, including a part where Pherick meets his old dead professor. This man reports he has been having sit-down meetings with Yeshua. (While alive, the professor had always maintained "Yeshua" was the true "Jesus.”)
The professor tells Pherick lamely: “(Yeshua) has interacted with professors before -- but not many.”
Say what? The great Yeshua is fussy about which guy with tenure and Ph.D he’ll talk to? Hmmmm. Doesn't seem to be too much of an equal opportunity Savior of All Mankind. Maybe Yeshua favors the rabble from lower society, you know, like undergraduate English majors? I don’t know, but I digress.
There are many other problems with this book as well, not the least of which is the peculiar woody way dialogue is handled -- the characters speak to each other like robots -- but I think you all get the gist of my view by now.
Your reviewer, Ken Korczak, is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA