Monday, June 2, 2014

Athol Dickson's "They Shall See God"

For a long time, I wouldn’t read novels set in New Orleans. I’d find too many references to Southern accents; the only people in New Orleans who had Southern accents were people who moved there from other parts of the south. Or I’d find really screwed up geography, which told me the author hadn’t visited the city, or even looked at a map. Or I’d find too many references to Spanish moss, as if the entire city had been draped in it (the parks and St. Charles Avenue, yes, but not much else).

Over the years, there have been a few exceptions – A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (he got the New Orleans accent exactly right); The Moviegoer by Walker Percy; Chasing the Devil’s Tail by David Fulmer (and his several other novels of New Orleans and Storyville); and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. There are others, but these few stand out as being about the New Orleans I knew and I know.

I started reading Athol Dickson’s They Shall See God because it was written by Athol Dickson. I didn’t realize beforehand that it was set in New Orleans. Dickson is a favorite writer of mine, and I nearly panicked when I realized it was a New Orleans novel (and a New Orleans mystery/suspense novel). I’ve liked everything of his that I’ve read, but a novel on New Orleans, the setting that so many other writers seem to screw up? Would he join that group?

I shouldn’t have worried. They Shall See God is not only a good story, it also manages to capture the spirit and the geography of the city where I was born and raised. It also manages to explore the themes of religion and faith by weaving together confrontational Christianity, Reform Judaism, and not-quite-confrontational Christianity – and keep the reader on the edge of the chair.

Ruth Gold, a Reformed Jewish rabbi, and Kate Flint, a French Quarter antique store owner, were childhood friends who were witnesses to a brutal murder. They both testified in the trial, and afterward drifted apart. Twenty-five years go by.

Solomon Cantor, who was convicted of the murder with the help of the two girls’ testimonies, is being released from prison. He’s met by his wife Gabby, who has in the intervening years managed to create a highly successful real estate business. Their son is estranged from the family, doesn’t speak to his mother and doesn’t plan to speak to his father.

The murder victim was a member of a Christian group that protested in front of a Garden District temple, the same temple where Ruth Gold is now a rabbi. And they’re still protesting.

Solomon Cantor returns to New Orleans, and people associated with the trial begin to die. The story moves from the Garden District (with some especially horrific scenes in Audubon Park and the Audubon Park Zoo) to downtown and the French Quarter, to Algiers on the west bank of the Mississippi, and out to the City Park area where Kate lives with her two children. Dickson captures the geography exactly right, and he captures the feel of the city exactly right as well, as the story moves toward its final crescendo – what may become a reenactment of the original murder.

Originally published in 2002, Dickson republished the novel in 2012. He describes in the introduction how he came to study the Torah (which features in the story) and how technology afforded him the opportunity to make improvements in the original manuscript.

They Shall See God is a fast-paced, riveting story – and it captures New Orleans exactly right.

Photograph: The streetcar (we don’t call them trolleys in New Orleans) on St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District.


Maureen said...

Just as novelists fail to get New Orleans right, so, too, do moviemakers who claim to be showing the D.C. area.

Athol Dickson said...

I'm glad you approve of the N.O. details, Glynn, and glad you enjoyed the story. The Jewish Community Center moved closer to Audubon Park in the novel for logistical reasons, so it's not exactly true to life, but sometimes you have to make a few adjustments to reality for the sake of drama. :-)

Jody Lee Collins said...

I've read so many reviews of good books in this space and you're the second person recently to mention Mr. Dickson.
Getting geographical details right about NOLA is key. We only lived there a year, but it was long enough to get a feel for the area.
Thanks for the heads up on this story, Glynn.