A rather callous and selfish painter, Sheridan Ridler is known for using and abusing people. He finds himself falling off a bridge into the Hudson River, and he dies, or at least seems to die. But there in the river he sees something, something marvelous, some kind of glory. Waking up from what seems the dead, he knows he has to paint what he’s seen, and nothing else matters.
He begins a journey, a journey that stretches from a hippie commune in the Catskills and a Buddhist enclave in the Far East to Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Rome and New Mexico.
Ridler’s unscrupulous agent (who knows his paintings are worth more with Ridler dead than alive) eventually has the artist declared legally dead. He tries to make a move on Ridler’s pregnant girlfriend, but she leaves New York and establishes her own life in California.
Decades pass. And then all of these separations begin to circle within one another. New paintings begin to show up, offered as kinds of apologies. The agent begins to get nervous – the value of all the known Ridler paintings will collapse if he’s found alive and still painting. And so the decision is made – Ridler has to die, and in a sense, he has to die for his own art.
That is the structural framework of Athol Dickson’s latest novel, The Opposite of Art. He’s called it his best novel to date, and I won’t argue with him except to say all of his novels are good novels, from “River Rising” to last year’s “Lost Mission.”
I will say that this is an important novel, more important than I realized when I first started reading it. It is not “Christian fiction,” even though Dickson is a Christian and the novel is filled with a Christian understanding and sensibility.
Ridler embarks upon a spiritual journey, and it’s completely recognizable, because it’s the same journey we are all on and the journey that we, like Ridler, seem to completely misunderstand. He keeps seeking spiritual masters to lead him to the glory he has to paint, and he keeps finding them to have clay feet and unable to give him what he believes he desperately needs. Each new location, each new guide, leaves him at the same starting point and closer to despair and the conviction he will never find what he’s spent his life seeking.
The Opposite of Art is beyond what we think of as Christian fiction; it is a work of art, full of questions and answers that pose more questions. It is about art, all art, and the nature of art and what it means. It is about the hole in our soul we look everywhere to fill. And it’s a shockingly good story.
Christian Manifesto: The Beauty of Athol Dickson