COAL MINE NO. 7 by Robert Louis Nathan


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Far less impressive than The Dreamtime (1975), Nathan's new theological-fantasy novel is equally sprawling but less original, more ludicrous and unabashed. Its hero is Seth, a retarded Jewish youth in Chicago, circa 1950, who, as a 17-year-old, plunks himself down amidst a friendly black family on the South Side. Innocently (everything Seth does he does innocently), he impregnates the family's daughter, Arly, and together the interracial couple moves down to southern Illinois, to the mining town of Vergennes. There, where an all-black work force mines a decrepit coal mine, No. 7, the white Jewish retardate finds acceptance and a space; eventually, through hard work and gentle countenance, he becomes manager of the mine. And down there under the earth, in an abandoned shaft, he also encounters God. . . and plays gin rummy with Him, too. God asks Seth to be his prophet, and Seth accepts--especially after God shows Seth the WW I horrors of Verdun and also flashes back in time to a Nazi concentration camp (where, in a shameless steal from Elie Wiesel, the inmates have put God on trial). Few readers, however, will be willing to go along with this well-meaning fable: Seth's simple naivete is far too studied to be convincing; and the fantasy elements clash disastrously with Nathan's descriptions of the mine operations--which are technical, oblique, and sometimes read like a repair-manual. Furthermore, there's an amateur's heavyhandedness in much of the prose (an old man ""out-ventricles"" his dead friends, a bus ""flatulates"" by). So, though readers who are acutely hungry for a certain brand of sentimental, quasi-religious uplift might respond to Nathan's aggressive, loony purity here, most will find it more embarrassing than exalting.

Pub Date: March 27th, 1981
Publisher: St. Martin's