Monday, August 13, 2012

The Beauty of Athol Dickson

For a year or so, I wrote a column for The Christian Manifesto, a site devoted to movie, book and music reviews and on faith and culture. It was something of an edgy site, and I was something of an oddity, with a more conventional perspective. But they were happy with my work, and I was happy to write for them.

We quietly drifted apart. My drafts occasionally get lost and I’ve to do a bit or prodding and reminding. Recently, the publication did a major overhaul, and my articles disappeared.


Many of my articles were actually pretty good (others’ opinions as well as mine) and the topics interesting and still current, so from time to time I will be reposting them here. I’m starting with one on author Athol Dickson, and it’s timely – next month under his own imprint, he’s republishing four of his novels – and he has a Win-A-Kindle and books contest this month. More information on the contest can be found here.

The Beauty of Athol Dickson

Author Athol Dickson wrote and published three suspense novels and a non-fiction book before he wrote four extraordinary novels: River Rising, a story of the 1927 Mississippi River flood and – slavery; The Cure, in which a small town in Maine attracts thousands of the homeless because of a rumor of a cure for alcoholism; Winter Haven, in which a young woman travels to an island off the coast of Maine to identify what may be the body of her long-lost brother, and his body hasn’t aged in 10 years; and Lost Mission, two stories of a mission in California set centuries apart.

The four stories are entirely different, although they do share several things in common.

All four portray a strong sense of place: a small town on an island in the swampland south of New Orleans; a seaside town in New England; an island off the coast of Maine; and the desert cities and suburbs of southern California.

Each of the novels contains a strong sense of the apocalyptic, with looming natural or man-made disasters or, in the case of Winter Haven, a foreboding sense of evil that is so palpable that the reader experiences high anxiety as soon as any character gets too close to the woods.
And each of the four are not “Christian novels” or “Christian fiction;” instead, they are novels – very fine novels – written by a Christian author.

They are also something else.

In a recent article for the Novel Journey blog, Dickson discussed fiction and beauty. He argued that a goal of a novel, perhaps the goal of a novel, is beauty. Even if we think beauty is a result of all of the other aspects of a novel – plot structure, characterization, narrative flow, even particular fine sections of writing – we still miss the point. It’s not a result of all these things; it is the result when all these work together, and work together well because it’s designed that way all along. Beauty, he says, should be intentional in a novel.

And then he says this: “The best friends of beauty in a novel are deep contemplation, honesty, intentionality, originality and love.”

I had to ponder that statement for quite some time. Those “friends of beauty” are not something readers, including Christian readers, are well versed in considering when we read a novel. Usually we say something like “it was a really good story” or “I felt so uplifted after reading it” or “that story edified me” (or didn’t, as the case may be). We don’t ask ourselves if the story was honest or original; in fact, originality often makes us uncomfortable because it takes us into uncharted waters (read Faces in the Fire or The Unseen, both by T.L. Hines, for examples). We look and look for familiarity, even when it takes us to the trite and clichéd.

Dickson’s novels are anything but trite and clichéd. While there are structural similarities in all four, they are not formulaic. And they take us into uncharted waters. River Rising, for example, takes on racism in a surprisingly unexpected way, through a kind of retelling of the story of Moses. Lost Mission tackles the motives that often lie unseen behind evangelism and contemporary Christianity, although never in an explicit way. Winter Haven looks at appearances, and how what looks like one thing can actually be an entirely different thing. And The Cure explores alcoholism and forces us to confront our discomfort with the homeless and “the bums on skid row” by turning them into something threatening – what we may appear to be to them.

If his intention was beauty, then Athol Dickson has succeeded – four times.

Since this article was first published, Dickson has also written the novel The Opposite of Art. My review was posted here last September.


Maureen said...

There was a good interview with Dickson on NPR recently. His themes remain ever relevant.

(The link on his name gets an error message.)

Anonymous said...

I read Lost MIssion, and a lot of it has actually stuck with me. I am glad to know that you intend to post your reviews on your own page.