New Age spirituality reclaims the fleshpots of Boca Raton in Merles’ flight of magical realism.
Calvin Jones is not just another homeless Black man on the upscale beachfront of the southern Florida town of Boca Raton—he’s a psychic visionary with access to the Akashic Record, a talent for astral projection and knowledge gleaned from a past life in biblical Gomorrah. His charismatic oratory, wellness advice (“Do less and breathe more”) and prophetic raps—“So when the Devil asks / Want to go fishin’? / say ‘no thanks’ and stick to your mission”—gather a following of troubled souls. Among them are the Finnstamocher family, including beaten-down housewife Mary, her hip, sarcastic daughter Jessica and Jessica’s stepfather Joe, a swaggering, politically incorrect, insecure businessman obsessed with the Miami Dolphins and the girls at Cheetah’s strip club. At the opposite pole is Venus, a gorgeous, otherworldly waif whom Calvin feels is destined to “lead multitudes” to “a higher plane of consciousness.” (Her sideline in nude dancing and massage is full of wholesome tantric energy and thus, in the book’s somewhat smarmy, hypocritical moral economy of exotic entertainment, the antithesis of the goings-on at Cheetah’s.) Merles’ wildly uneven first novel pulls in contradictory directions. Much of it is absorbing, hard-edged domestic naturalism, featuring sharply drawn characters with conflicted psychologies, rendered in superbly orchestrated scenes and pitch-perfect dialogue; the Finnstamocher clan in particular is a fascinating counterpoint of roiling id and numbed humiliation. Unfortunately, the author insists on smothering all discontents with bland New Age dogma that slows everything to a standstill for pages on end, especially when Calvin channels the droning psychobabble of the One Infinite Creator. (“Such thoughts and feelings of being alone, repeated over and again create negative patterns that contaminate and pollute your mind, causing blocks that hinder advancement.”) Merles is a talented writer, but he can’t decide whether to be John Updike or Shirley MacLaine.
A promising but schizophrenic debut that pinballs between vibrant social realism and turgid mysticism.