John, by Niall Williams

This 2008 work is a remarkable novel of the imagination. Williams has immersed himself in the minds, the bodies, and the souls of the Apostle John and his followers, around 100 AD. From the time he and they are exiled to Patmos, when John is an old man and blind, to his discovery of peace at Ephesus.

But throughout this period, disappointment and frustration lurk. For John, and his disciples, are waiting for the return of Jesus, his Second Coming. It is what sustains him in his old age, and what seems to hold together his disciples. The reader knows they are mistaken, of course, in awaiting Jesus’ return, but their faith, their belief in Him will culminate with the understanding, the transformation, that will provide fulfillment to their life, and to this novel.

From the very first chapter, I found myself immersed in the reality of this primitive era and the tender care with which John’s disciples look after their frail leader. Not to mention their deep faith as they ready themselves for the return of Christ, the only conclusion they can see that justifies their political exile on this desolate, rock-covered island.

Also evocative of this ancient era is the style Williams has chosen to tell his tale. It is highly poetic, as is his style in all his novels, but beyond being beautiful to read, it also serves to render quite natural the biblical world in which these characters live. Moreover, it is complemented by brief passages even more biblical in feeling when John recalls moments of his youth when he walked with Jesus.

But, of course, this is also a novel. And a novel needs more than style. There must be movement, must be tension that allows the characters to interact. Which, in turn, carries the reader ahead. And so an unexpected death early on confronts these holy men, followed by an innocent confrontation with the devil, and, finally, rebellion. Indeed, these dozen or so disciples become more human as half of them turn against their leader.

Their rebellious leader, Matthias, argues that if they are to be abandoned by a Jesus who does not return, then John cannot be believed, and so they are foolish to follow him. In this way, Matthias convinces his followers that he knows the true path to God, and that they should strike out on their own, establishing their own community. And realize that Matthias is closer to God than John ever was. It begins as an effective portrait of evil; but as it goes on, it seems quite an obvious one.

My assumption is that this rebellion is a fruit of the author’s imagination, and is part of his novelization of this portrait of John. In any event, it fits perfectly. It underscores the weakness, as well as the humanity, of these men who see themselves as servants of God. It also raises the issue of doubt, which many see today as a constant ingredient of faith. Indeed, the positive response of the remaining disciples makes their own faith stronger.

Williams has written that the germ of this book came to him when he was in the middle of another book. It came in the form of this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel? “I was looking for…the man not the Apostle,” he writes. “I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long?” And after considerable research he found himself “writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are.”

The climax of this novel certainly reflects Williams’ moment of inspiration. But it also reflects the depth of his research. For while the desolation of Patmos was comparatively easy to portray, the portrayal of

Ephesus is much more complex. For it was a bustling city, with merchants hustlers, and charlatans everywhere. Indeed, John can make no headway in this city of commerce—and succeeds only when there is a transformation within him. Which follow the intervention of nature…and also of God?

What was John doing before writing his gospel? He was recovering from an earthquake, recovering slowly, all the while still waiting for Jesus to return. But just as earlier, he had rediscovered the importance of love and been inspired to dictate scripture, so now a violent thunderstorm, with brilliant lightening, helps him to realize the importance of light, and how it symbolizes what Jesus brought to mankind and to the world. Which is when he is inspired to write his gospel.

But neither Williams nor the reader can forget the novel’s focus on Papias, the youngest disciple who from the beginning has served the apostle, being the youngest and the strongest. And at the climax, he as well as John is near despair at the failure of Jesus to return. Indeed, he is suffering further, for he has unwittingly contacted the plague in Patmos, and now is ashamed of his physical condition and his failure to serve his master.

When John is revived, however, after the storm, he at once cures Papias of the plague—on the last page. I think this a misstep by Williams, as if he cannot leave this young man near despair at the end, and must save him with a miracle. One suspects that Papias is a fictional character, and Williams wanted to give him a similar crisis at the end of this tale, but he could have given him another different fate—and not needed a miracle. If he was an historic figure, I apologize, but I still regret the author resorting to a miracle.

Overall, Williams was right to see his tale as a love story. It is a story of John’s love of Jesus, which motivates his entire life. But it also about his love of his disciples. And their love of God, yes, but even more their love of this aged, infirm man whom they support and guide, and refuse to desert.

This novel once again demonstrates Williams’ beauty of style on one level and depth of humanity on another. It is a depth that stems from his recognition of and commitment to the spiritual nature of man. I shall certainly continue reading him. (August, 2016)

Homer & Langley, by E. L. Doctorow

I bought this 2009 novel because I have long respected Doctorow. But I hesitated at picking it up to read, because I was not drawn to its story of two elderly recluse trapped in their trash-filled Fifth Avenue mansion, which is based on an actual event. What finally prompted me to read it was Doctorow death just a few weeks ago.

As soon as I entered the world of Homer and Langley Collyer, however, I became entranced. For it was a world of teenage brothers, one of whom, the narrator Homer, is slowly losing his sight and is in the process of adjusting to his new life. In other words, this tale has a voice, and one is quickly involved in this strange world.

For a while, this approach works, as these two young men become mutually supportive, especially when they lose their parents to the flu after World War I. Homer even has a brief romance. But at a certain point, their relationship no longer advances. Instead, interest comes from the various people who enter their home, the brothers’ relationship with the city and its services, and the alienation Homer and Langley have toward all those who violate their sanctuary.

We also learn that Langley is beginning to collect newspapers and other materials and is storing them away in their mansion. But I was never convinced about his reasons for doing this. It is not enough that he suffered brain damage from mustard gas in World War I. Nor is it that he has conceived a Theory of Replacements, meaning, for example, that children replace their parents. Most of all, it is not clear how this has led to his idea of replacing newspapers by creating a dateless newspaper comprising all of history. How this newspaper works never becomes clear to me, much less convincing. In addition, Homer accepts all of his brother’s decisions rather than challenges him. Mainly, he does not try to stop Langley’s impractical hoarding of other useless items, like placing a Model T in the dining room.

Nor does Homer, now blind, challenge his brother’s continual duels with the city and its services. The emphasis in every case is on the situation of these two men besieged in this Fifth Avenue mansion. Whereas, the richness of this novel should be inside the mansion, should be in the relationship between these two men. How does Langley justify, even to himself, what he does? And why is Homer so accommodating to his brother’s idiosyncrasies?

Even so, around the half-way point, this novel changes gears. It focuses even more on what is happening in the outside world, and how the brothers recognize and/or react to those events. There is a Depression. There is warfare in Europe, Japan, and Korea. There are the Sixties protests and assassinations. There is a landing on the moon. There is a city blackout. All of which recalls recent comments in Doctorow’s obituary that all his novels together comprise a century and a half of American history. This work certainly attempts to capture much of the 20th century.

Yes, there are occasional dramatic moments, such as when a young piano student whom Homer liked leaves and becomes a nun, and the brothers learn much later that she has been raped and killed in South America (such as actual nuns were). And also, when a gangster family whom the brothers had met earlier now seek to hide in their mansion after their leader is wounded.

Doctorow winds up his novel with Homer turning deaf, and so losing his ability to play and appreciate music, whereupon he is persuaded to become a writer, and to tell the story, via Braille, of the Collyer brothers, the story we are now reading. Sorry, this is too much a contrivance by the author to round off and conclude his novel. Also unconvincing to me is the clutter inside the mansion, the narrow aisles between the piles of newspapers, boxes, and debris. It is continually described, but I never felt the supposed claustrophobia. I never felt how these brothers had entrapped themselves in their own folly.

To sum up, after a promising beginning, this becomes a disappointing novel. It is too much about the surface of these brothers’ lives, whereas it should tell the internal story of why these brothers became recluses, the debates and disagreements they would have had, and the drama of how they antagonized each other rather than how the outside world antagonized them. It relies too much on known fact, on the outside world, and not enough on the author’s imagination, on what was happening inside these brothers’ minds.

This is the last of Doctorow’s novels I shall read. Unfortunately, it is not one of his better ones. (August, 2015)