The brief description of this book is exceedingly misleading. One could say that the suburban-soccer-mom-moonlighting-as-dominatrix is almost a trope,The brief description of this book is exceedingly misleading. One could say that the suburban-soccer-mom-moonlighting-as-dominatrix is almost a trope, and a played out one at that.
Not the case in this powerful novel.
The narrator initially presents herself almost as such. She is an over-educated Ukrainian emigre, steeped in the rich literature of Russia and possessing literary aspirations of her own (she is stymied on a novel about her dead sister), who now finds herself, the mother of three teen and preteen children, languishing in the suburban cultural desert that stretches between Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
She takes the dominatrix position ("no sex involved") in a Berkeley "dungeon," ostensibly, as a means to break out of her rut. Research on a book about sex workers, she tells herself and her husband who reluctantly obliges her. Who knows, maybe it will help her with the blocked novel about her dead sister.
This is masterfully presented. We take her at her word. Of course, the narrator has unconsciously selected the exact series of actions (as we all do) that will cause her complete and total disintegration, but in a manner that must be read to be believed. Her unraveling is masterfully handled; as she comes undone, we realize, much to our surprise, that we have been aware of the knots of her self-deception all along.
The "dungeon" house itself is a delight. Not the sophisticated dungeon you might be imagining but rather a Berkeley house in modest disrepair run by a semi-elderly mommy and staffed by stoners and single moms trying to pay off their student loans while telling themselves they too are really just doing "research".
For this reader, however, the dungeon house scenes do drag down the action in the middle of the novel. The roster of oddball perverts passing through and the narrator's observations and reactions to them begin to feel repetitive after a while. I felt like the narrative was treading water in parts.
Between these scenes, sweet relief came in the form of the narrator's flashbacks to her upbringing in Soviet-era Odessa and her recollections of her grandmother and the dead sister who is central to the story. (This novel becomes the dead sister novel, after all.)
The action then picks back up with a vengeance for a sweeping and gripping and mind-bending final third of the book. I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but if, like me, you find the action slow in the middle, stick it out.
You will be well rewarded.
I certainly was. So much so, as soon as I post this, I'm going back to reread the final third again....more
Everything! Revivalist preachers, mail-fraud scam artists, confidence men who confuse their cons with their dreams, pregnant teenage prostitutes, bullEverything! Revivalist preachers, mail-fraud scam artists, confidence men who confuse their cons with their dreams, pregnant teenage prostitutes, bullfighters on acid, headlines clipped from The Weekly World News. That's just for starters.
Reverend America starts out on a powerful note. An albino man arrives at a Midwest bus station. At first we have know idea what year it is - it could be 1950 or 2010. This only emphasizes how unchanging certain locales and corners -- and ethos -- of America can be. Gradually we learn it is the present, but this seems hardly relevant -- we are dealing with eternal issues here. A violent act quickly follows.
We are flabbergasted to learn that the albino drifter with the capacity for great violence was, once upon a time, a child prodigy on the revival circuit. How can one mature into the other? The first half of the novel weaves between his life growing up and his present-day pilgrimage back to Joplin, Missouri, the only place he once considered home.
Saknussemm's fireside storytelling style is full of knowing, with a mix of cynicism and compassion for his characters, even the worst malefactors. His voice is at once learned and casual, folksy and literary.
By the time the albino arrives, we arrive too. A complex man seeking redemption, seeking to understand the forces that pull the strings behind the world as projected upon the screen of our experience. We have traveled his past to his present and we understand.
The second half of the book chronicles a new mission that lands in his lap, which carries him first to Austin then the bayous of Louisiana, where he finally earns his redemption. And where we the reader experience a wave of emotion when we indeed learn that everything is connected in ways we could not imagine.
My only peeve with this novel is that the author touches on dozens of interesting stories and histories that I wished had been fleshed out. Of course, if he had, the book would be 2000 pages long....more