In this debut novel, Pepe offers an intriguing mixture of cage fighting and religion in an homage to Homer’s Iliad.
The story features a young protagonist whose real name is Achilles Jeannopoulos, but who goes by the nickname “Archie.” He’s a veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a cage fighter who’s proud of his Greek-American heritage. In this tale that echoes the Iliad, he is, of course, a stand-in for his namesake warrior; his trainer and best friend, Byron, is Patroclus; his corner-man, Mackey, is Odysseus; the venal club owner, Joe, represents King Agamemnon; and Archie’s girlfriend, Meaghan, is Briseis. His archenemy in the cage is a man named Heckman (standing in for Hector). Archie is a good fighter and an endearing wise guy; he’s also religious, and the Upper Room Praise and Worship Church sponsors him as a fighter. Clearly, he’s a complex young man who’s afire with passion. Joe wants to set Archie up against Heckman to bring in the crowds, but Heckman is a professional fighter, powered by steroids, who’s merely slumming at the club, so Archie resists the club owner’s urgings. Then Archie discovers that he is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. However, the church needs money desperately, so Byron, long retired, fights Heckman, hoping to win a fat purse. Later, Archie, who’s in the most fragile of health, takes on Heckman himself. Afterward, his tumor is bleeding and he’ll almost certainly die soon, so he sets off in his sailboat for his ancestral homeland, Greece, powered by rage and alcohol. Along the way, he has further adventures, including an apparent debate and standoff with Lucifer himself.
This is a highly ambitious novel—and, for many readers, it may seem to be too ambitious. Indeed, it quickly becomes an overcrowded catchall for the author’s thoughts on a very wide range of subjects, including God and morality, mortality, heroism, and present-day culture, among many other topics. To that end, there are many mini-essays herein; overall, it feels like a young man’s novel—passionate but undisciplined—and as a result, it often seems overwritten. For example, when a sad Archie impulsively plucks a flower, he immediately regrets what he’s done to it, and in the very next paragraph, the flower is referred to as “slain foliage.” Sometimes, the text contains inventive grammar, such as “the work perspired him.” On the other hand, it’s hard not to like a book that works so hard to make its points, and Archie comes off as a genuinely likable smart aleck and hero-in-training. The exchanges between him and Meaghan are affecting, with her loving and insightful but frustrated, and him, often, as dense as a post. That said, some readers may want to throw up their hands when the drunk and dying Archie imprudently sets sail for Greece. In the end, though, it somehow all works—in part, because he doesn’t wind up in Greece, after all.
A mixed bag, but this allegorical tale is definitely worth a read.