Anthem of a Reluctant Prophetby Joanne Proulx Published 01 May 2007
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“Stan,” I said, and I said it kind of loud so of course he had to look up. “Tomorrow morning: 8:37. The red van with the out-of-state plates? You go head to head. You lose. You die.” After freakishly foretelling the death of a friend, Luke Hunter becomes big news in Stokum, his rank little pinprick of a hometown. Terrified, but pretending not to be, Luke holds everyone—the local media, his buddy Fang, the Polish widow next door—at arm’s length as he lurches through a personal minefield studded with previously unconsidered existential ponderings, Christian fundamentalists, a missing teen’s frantic mother, and a dream girl who isn’t his.
Hormonal and funny, exhilarating and wise, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet slyly explores the need to belong, the isolation of youth, and the powerful brew of fear and truth, music and noise, that plays inside us all.
"Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet" Reviews
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)
As I mentioned here at the website last week, there are sadly a number of issues from my daytime life that are keeping me these days from penning the usual thousand-word book reviews I normally post here every day or two; one of those issues, for example, is that I've recently gotten involved with a new literary site called Authonomy.com, sponsored by the major press HarperCollins, in which unsigned novelists post their unsigned novels and everyone else there reads and rates these unsigned novels, with the top five manuscripts at the end of each month being "kicked upstairs" to actual employees of HarperCollins (whatever that means -- the company itself is remaining frustratingly mysterious about the actual mechanics of the system). I'm there, frankly, because I'm trying to get practice as an editor at a publishing company, something I talk a lot of smack about but that realistically I've never actually held a paying job doing; I figure that if I approach things there the right way, I can get the same kind of practical editing experience at Authonomy as any 24-year-old slush-pile junior editor at any major press you can mention, only without the 9-to-5 commitment and the a--hole bosses and all the other crappy things that come with being a 24-year-old slush-pile junior editor at some rapidly dying major press. And thus is it that every single day these days, I'm reading via RSS the pitches of every single new manuscript being uploaded to Authonomy (30 to 50 a day, every single day); and thus is it that I'm actually reading the first chapter of three or four of these manuscripts each day, and then reading a lot more of at least one of these novels each day, and writing up lengthy "coverage" style notes regarding this one manuscript each day. All in practice for CCLaP's own publishing program, which is finally (finally!) starting next month, and for which in the future I really hope to go out and find absolutely brilliant unsigned novels that no one else has discovered yet, and be able to bring them to you via CCLaP in an inexpensive way so that all of us can merely enjoy them.
And thus is it that I've come to a much better appreciation in my life these days of what exactly an editor does; and this just happens to coincide with me reading the novel Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, the first full-length book by a hipster short-story writer named Joanne Proulx, that actually illustrates quite well why it's so damn important to have a good editor at the heart of any good published book. Because the fact is that this is a great novel, a nearly brilliant one, certainly one of the better first novels I've read in a long time; but it's simply hampered by it being too lengthy, a manuscript that should've been cut to about two-thirds the length it currently is before it was ever published. If that had been done, this would've freaked people out by how amazing and tight and powerful it is; as it stands, it's a better-than-average book but merely that, something that starts out great but that wears out its welcome by the time page 356 rolls around. This is not the author's fault, not at all; as I've learned from my time at Authonomy now, it is clearly the fault of whoever this book's editor was, and sadly a sign of everything wrong with modern American mainstream publishing these days. It's a recommendation today that I'm giving, but only a limited one; the rest of today's essay is dedicated to why that is.
And why is that? After all, you can't really argue with Proulx's credentials: an academic short-fiction veteran, her publishing credits before this novel range all over the obscure yet respected academic world, the exact kind of delicate metaphorical work so loved by all those snotty little writing professors out there. But yet she's a hipster too, so bridges the divide into the popular mainstream; and make no mistake, this first novel of hers could've easily been published by Punk Planet or Soft Skull without anyone blinking an eye. Essentially the tale of teenage white male burnouts in suburban Detroit in the early 2000s, Prophet centers around our troubled yet insightful antihero Luke; stoner, metalhead, too cool for school and too cleverly smart for the small-town academic administration where he lives. Used to the fact that they must entertain themselves most of the time, the realization that most bored midwestern teens make right around the age of sixteen, Luke and his pals have gotten into the habit of saying and doing outrageous things in front of each other on slow Friday nights, as they all sit around smoking a bong in one carpeted basement rec-room or another; and thus it is that one hazy smoked-filled night, just for sh-ts and grins, Luke predicts the insanely detailed grisly death of the wispy-mustachioed friend over in the corner of the White-Stripes-blasting basement where they're all currently toking.
Only one problem -- the next day, the friend dies in the exact insanely detailed way that Luke predicts, prompting all his stoner buddies to immediately blab to both their friends and the media about it, prompting on a slow news week a feeding frenzy among the "Local Emmy Award Winning" news teams kicking up dust around the Detroit metro area. And thus does this book suddenly spin from a literal story into a metaphorical one; because to be sure, this book is not really about the ongoing series of ghostly revelations Luke has, regarding a whole series of acquaintances and strangers who end up dying around him, even though ostensibly this is exactly what the literal plot is about. No, no, Proulx is actually very smart here, and uses all this merely as an excuse to talk about a bigger issue in more symbolic terms; of the budding adulthood facing our hero, of the suddenly complex and morally ambiguous adult truths about the world that Luke is suddenly starting to understand on a daily basis.
At least, this is certainly the analysis I had of the story, walking away from it at the end; I saw the entire thing as a metaphorical tale about adulthood and the maturation process itself, of the way we all suddenly understand these profound new truths about the world during our late teen years, radical and sometimes upsetting truths that severely mess with what had up to then been an unshakeable paradigm in our heads of how the world works. Now that I'm twenty years out from my late teens myself, this is the main thing I still remember from them, of just how upsetting it was to suddenly accept all this new complexity about life I learned back then, things I take for granted now as a permanently bitter and cynical middle-ager but that were legitimately paradigm-shifting experiences back then. Think about the very first time as a teen, for example, that you profoundly and sincerely understood that you were smarter than the adult currently lecturing you; think about what a legitimately upsetting experience that was, of how that suddenly threw into doubt every single accepted belief you had had before then of the relationship between adults and children, of all the accepted beliefs you had had about adults before that moment. That's what Proulx is so great at here in Prophet, is capturing those small, easily forgotten moments of late youth, stuff I literally hadn't thought about in decades but that all came flooding back to me while reading this book, even more brilliant than normal precisely by being told through this magical-realism element of this kid accurately predicting the grisly adult fates of the various people around him.
And that, like I said, is what makes this such a disappointment from an editing standpoint; because this would've made an astounding 250-page novel, a short book that would've wowed people all over the world and suddenly made Proulx a hipster household name. But at 350 pages, it's officially 100 pages too long; and that's a third of an entire novel too long, simply unacceptable when you're talking about a person being paid a good salary supposedly to dedicate eight hours a day to making a manuscript as tight and powerful as possible. Before this book ever came out, someone in the publishing process should've recognized this as longer than it should've been; and that someone should've trimmed this book down to the point where it would've wowed everyone, and why this was never done is simply beyond my understanding. Like I said, we should never blame the author themselves for such a situation, because this is what a writer is supposed to do, is write; an author is supposed to turn in a horribly bloated, overwritten mess, while the job of an editor is to edit this mess, to turn it into the brilliant little sculpture that all professionally edited books are supposed to be, after the whole process is over.
This is still a great book, I want to make clear, one I think all you regular CCLaP readers will enjoy very much, a dark and funny and unexpected story that will make you glad that you sat down and read it in the first place; I guess I just can't help but be at least slightly disappointed by it, merely because of understanding how much better it could've been if merely matched up with a good editorial team, and a marketing committee that didn't ring up the cash register according simply to word count. I'm tired of watching publishing companies judge a book's worthiness according to postal weight; this is clearly the fault of overzealous marketing committees and powerless editors, a situation I would like to see change in the publishing industry as soon as possible.
Out of 10:
I sincerely hope that Ms. Proulx keeps writing because she has such a wonderful talent for creating rich characters that lift you up and take you along on their journey - if only for a couple-hundred pages. The issues dealt with; God, religion, teen angst, love and loss are tough on any author but Joanne Proulx carries it off like a pro! I was left feeling a kinship with my fellow man and a renewed faith that divine grace is carried within each of our hearts - not behind the walls of a church. Don't let the dark cover art fool you, this book will make you laugh and cry lift your spirits for days after you read the final page!
Much like its teenage characters, who, like most young adults, seem to think the world stops for them, this one bit off more than it could chew, trying to be a tad more impactful than it had the chops to back up.
Centering on the story of Luke, who somehow accidentally predicts the future and the death of his friend Stan, Anthem is a fairly realistic (at times) portrayal of a stoner teen with admittedly atypical teenage drama. Though the story of Luke's premonitions is the one to sell, the story gets bogged down by his altogether typical slacker coming-of-age while trying to be under the raider, underachieving high school issues.
This one had a good deal of potential. It was given to me by a friend and I picked it up and immediately put it down a few times as, after briefly skimming, I got trapped in the language, which felt a little like a forced attempt at teenage slang. I tried it again a few days ago and suddenly found myself fifty pages in. I wasn't exactly on the edge of my seat, but it was moving along fairly quickly, so I thought I'd tough it out for the long haul. There are swiftly moving scenes and plot points that did hook me in from time to time, but then again there were many chapters that I skimmed just to get going, not being able to commit to the slower moments and the bits and pieces that seemed disjointed and unnecessary. What was the main message of this novel? The major revelation? Luke learned he had been a shitty friend. And......maybe gained some sense of spirituality. And wasn't really psychic. And didn't ever connect with his elusive uncle. But he got laid and really liked The White Stripes.
The story just fell a bit short, trying to be more than it was. The repetitive references to rock bands, while at first seemed realistic, began to feel more and more like a gimmick, a way to stay young and 'current', though, clearly, the references will date this novel.
I do have to give Joanne Proulx some kudos for her ability to write some very touching moments and some very relatable characters. There were some scenes that really struck a chord with me, feeling very genuine and real, very human. One in particular that made me rethink my opinion of the novel is one in which Luke awakens from a rather vicious nightmare. His brain is bogged down in sleep and fear and he tries to make sense of his surroundings. In the darkness, as he lies next to Faith, anxiety creeps up and he reaches out to brush the hair from her face, just to make sure she is Faith and not the specter of his dreams. At which point he thinks 'Of course it's her. Of course it is.". Proulx ability to get inside the panicked mind of someone trying to escape the clutches of irrationality was perfect. I could feel exactly how Luke felt in this brief instant, it was such an honest interaction. I would read other works by Proulx, having faith that she can spin even an often unlikeable set of characters into a highly readable character drama.
I am... honest to God very confused as to the purpose of this book in it's entirety. The plot seemed really definite and interesting at the beginning and looked as if the story had great potential, but then reading on, it just got super confusing and just all over the place. I didn't really understand what was happening most of the time, the ending was just very lacklustre and didn't really explain anything. Astelle actually being alive was super confusing, Luke had been seeing her as dead for so long and she just turns up? Does he actually see his dead friends, or was it just the drugs? This book made it seem like everything could be accounted to drugs, so I'm unsure as to what was real and what was not, there was no distinguishing.
Also, I very much did not appreciate the more than necessary accounts of deaths of animals in excruciating details. Nor did I love the homophobic atmosphere of the book, which doesn't really have a place or a purpose in the actual story or to the main character until much later on, and by then the homophobia isn't really mentioned anymore and we never really get to expand on Fang's story.
The book just leaves off on a rather bland note. Reading this book took me ages to actually get into the story, there's not much structure and like I said it's just pretty confusing. I don't think the particular concept was really that well executed.
But one thing I did enjoy about the story was the writing. It was a mix of literate but with believable teenage boy-type language. It sort of hinted at this underlying trait that Luke is smarter than he lets on, this is executed by Luke's story telling clearly involving some pretty advanced word choice. But all in all, I didn't find this book to be all that enjoyable. The excruciating religion plot didn't help the story along in any way, if anything it was just annoying and overbearing, I didn't see any use for it or for it having such a big role that it did.
A lot of this didn't make sense and it was a pretty decent read but I'm just left feeling confused, disappointed with the ending and just plain bored.
The experience of reading Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet is much like taking a roller coaster with endless elevation.
The takeoff is particularly mind-blowing: with Luke casting his ultra-authentic death prophecy and his friend Stan almost instantly becoming his victim, the novel seizes my heart in a blitzkrieg.
And there’s more to come. As the coaster rumbles ahead, Fang, Luke’s buddy of life along with Faith Taylor, his dream girl hops on the coaster and joins the adventure. Faith’s blonde hair is blinding under the blistering sun; and a gust of breeze sends her minty smell to me. “This is gonna be interes--” I turn to Fang in the back seat, suddenly feel like screaming but can’t hear myself -- the safety lock swings in the air, the seat occupied my Fang just one minute ago is now blank. Eyes wide open; I sense a woman’s voice scratches through my ears: “Fang’s involved in an underground homosexual orgy; he will commit a suicide as his name will be revealed by the local newspaper.” I gasp for some air, close my eyes, thinking the coaster will plummet to the ground.
Unaware of how many seconds have actually elapsed, heart bounding and spine quivering, I slice open my eyes -- the coaster is still climbing. I throw a confounded glimpse to Faith, barely read anything from her pale face. The rough whisper creeps again and demands me to look up –in a dim glow way above, I see Luke is surrounded by three figures; all wear I-can-save-you expressions and chant to the evil-infused problem child. Overwhelmed by the mechanic squawk from down under the track, I can’t catch their conversations. “What the hack” I curse, then a slight, scratchy laughter slips across my right ear.
I desperately crane my neck, attempt to see a slope that will lead me into the ground – nothing, the ascension seems to be endless. “Where’s Fang??” I hear myself asking “he’s probably dying, what Luke is doing there...” The sound from above finally makes its way through the bothersome clacks, “...three steps of salvation...repentance...baptism...” Luke awkwardly recites the bible; a sanctimonious expression is plastered on his face. Given the truth that he is a perverted stoner who worships dopes as his god, I’m pretty sure he is brainwashed. I hear a distant sizz, this time from inside, as if an inflated balloon becomes floppy in a slow motion.
“Okay, this is enough” I shout, unsnap the lock of my seat, leap into the vacuum underneath.
The style of writing is amusing, just as a stoner teenage boy from the Midwest would talk. But the references to music (the Anthem if you will) that repeatedly appear in the book are poor. I really find it distracting and poor writing when authors resort to identifying popular bands (i.e., White Stripes and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) in their writing. There is something automatically limited in such references. The book will never be timeless or classic or appealing to readers of the future. That is just me.
So popular references aside, the story was written in a fun style but lacks the teeth to cause the reader to really question God, life, death, and fate. Its a nice try though.