Monday, November 28, 2005

Book Review: The Soul of America by Abraham King

Do you know where the soul of America is? I do but I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to read the book.

Actually, this book is less concerned with America’s soul than those parts that have become separated from it. Specifically religion, business, politics, the workers – well, the whole country, I suppose - and each part is represented by a caricature designed for first time novelist Abraham King’s dissection and criticism.

The book opens and closes on a flea market – a nice device that prepares the reader for the messiness of all that will come. Surrounded as it is by the chaos of mounds of junk for sale and grubby customers rifling through old pots and pans, the book produces a futility for the characters as they try to enforce some sort of order to their life.

While each character desperately clings to whatever portion of the American pie he has gained, he is unaware of the ground crumbling beneath him. We are shown how the actions of each contribute directly to the decline of America. This demonstrates a perpetuation of power on the parts of both the powerful and powerless that vexes the entire novel.

The caricature studies begin with the militia man without a militia. He has a credo and an agenda but no followers. He is followed by two religious leaders, one who is slowly converting his church to a shopping mall and another who doesn’t really seem to have a church at all. We also meet the business tycoon whose entire existence is literally and necessarily spent at his desk as it contains the life support systems for his failing body. The working poor and the middle management employee help to round out this modern American morality play. Finally, the government overseeing this madness is run by amateurs trained by amateurs with no greater goal than to stay in office.

Anything here sound familiar? If there is a genius to King it is that he can take the ills intrinsic to the point of being familiar in modern American society and twist them through hyperbole so that we are reintroduced to their corrosive nature. He holds up a circus mirror to make us reexamine the evils that we have become used to.

This very act produces not only a chance to see the America with fresh eyes but many chances at humor. For all of the darkness here, there is a great deal of comedy. I found myself laughing aloud and while simultaneously horrified by book’s macabre twists.

You might have noticed, if you try to be a politically correct grammarian as I do, that I seem to have slipped into the now archaic method of referring generically to all persons with a masculine pronoun. This is not the case. Except for one or two minor characters, this book is devoid of women. I’m not sure if this is an oversight by the author or another of his many points regarding what is wrong with America today. Given Abraham’s taut metaphors, I tend to think the later.

This is really an entertaining book. The idea is well conceived and the characters, even if I can’t find myself caring for even the most sympathetic of them, are interesting enough to keep the pages turning.

But then this is a parable and who needs depth?