“There was a stiffness in him that would be hard to break, but that, nevertheless, would one day surely be broken. As hers had been, and Richard’s — there was no escape for anyone. God was everywhere, terrible, the living God; and so high, the song said, you couldn’t get over Him; so low you couldn’t get under Him; so wide you couldn’t get around Him; but must come in at the door.” (p. 226)
The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.
John Grimes is a young man growing up in the poverty-stricken Harlem of 1935, continually being told that he is destined to become a man of God. His father, Gabriel, is a tyrant who preaches fire and brimstone every Sunday at the Temple of the Fire Baptized Church. Gabriel makes his son’s life a living hell, so much so that John even daydreams about killing him. One night, when John, Gabriel, John’s mother Elizabeth and his aunt Florence are at the Church, all are caught up in a religious rapture through which the reader learns about their pasts. At the end of this sequence, John undergoes a series of horrific visions and emerges from this ecstasy with a revitalized furor for the Church.
The majority of this book is taken up by the “Prayers of the Saints” scenes in which we learn about the three older peoples’ pasts, and through them learn about how John came to be. I thought the back-stories of the gathered faithful were far more interesting than the framing story about John. It was an interesting way to read a story, almost Rashomon-ish in the way it moved around through time and space, although without that film’s use of unreliable narration. You ended up putting the pieces together as to why Gabriel hated his son, why Gabriel’s sister hates him, etc. So that was kind of fun.
John’s father Gabriel is by far the most interesting character in the book. I liked how he was a complete asshole the entire time, who barely even paid lip service to the ideas of repentance he preaches to his flock. What did begin to wear on me after a while were the sermons. There is a lot of sermonizing and moral lessons and stuff in this book, and it got pretty boring after a while. While I did recognize some of the allusions to Biblical imagery that were to be found in the intertwined stories of Gabriel and his son, I really felt like I was being pounded over the head with it.
It actually put me in mind of Canadian author Timothy Findley’s excellent book Not Wanted on the Voyage, which actually just explored the lives of Noah and his kids (to name an example from Mountain), rather than preaching it at me. Maybe all of this sermonizing wouldn’t have been so boring to me if I were even remotely religious? Who knows. I just know that quotations like the one above, how John’s will must be broken before God, read more to me like dispatches from Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four than any sort of belief system I’d like to adhere to.
I learned later that this book is semi-autobiographical, which explains to a certain extent why the character of John is such a cipher. It’d be difficult to examine yourself at the age of fourteen with anything resembling objectivity, so that’s why Baldwin chose to focus instead on John’s family members. That’s my take on it anyway.
“To ‘come along’ meant that he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had traveled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom ‘coming along’ is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.” (p100-101).
Total pages read since January 1st: 9268 pp.
Total books on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 24
Next up on the Resolution Project: San Diego Comic Con Vacation!