In this debut novel, generations of Southern preachers ponder abstruse philosophy in a meditation on religion, language—and almost everything else.
Mapes’ saga commences in 1832 when a schism in The Church of The Reconstructed Dunkers sends itinerant pastor Loyal Larkin heading south from Tennessee into Alabama. The dispute, about which Bible to use, is carried on in both academic jargon (“a definitional structure lent an authority, in fact a double authority, in addition to the transporting and utterly edifying language present in the King James Bible”) and Southern trash-talk (“Well, if a toady frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass”), which sets the tone of the alternately vulgar and highfalutin palaver to come. The narrative vaguely follows Loyal and his descendants through the Civil War in an episodic blur of literary allusions—a Faulknerian jape in which a child emerging from a coffin startles the dentures out of a lady; a hanging inspired by Ambrose Bierce; a Hawthorne-like predicament involving a fallen woman—then jumps ahead to the life of modern-day minister Sissy-Jane Hannah Larkin Laputa and her flock in South Aintry, Louisiana. But the rickety story is just a pretext for the characters to talk endlessly, turgidly and mostly to themselves about various deep thoughts; these are further elaborated in long excerpts from writers from Kierkegaard to Marshall McLuhan, whose spirit presides over the book’s fixation on communications technology. Mapes is an inventive writer whose prose sometimes achieves a nonsensical poetry that James Joyce might have appreciated (“Stinking fitchew flag-fallen in flam, no longer has a gadling to walk the path, only garabee gallanting, peddling gammon and garboil”). Unfortunately, his cogitations are so dense, obscure and ill-digested—“How does a lost thingness fetch back, in renewal, its contra positive reborn appositionally?”—that readers’ eyes may soon glaze over.
A stylistically ambitious, hyperintellectual but riotously overwritten novel.