Friday, December 7, 2012

Religion For Non-Religious People

Michael Neale, The River

As a child, Gabriel Clarke watched his father give his life saving a kayaker from certain death. The son and grandson of seasoned river guides, this tragedy leaves Gabriel terrified of his inheritance on the water. He endures a youth of timid choices and small accomplishment, colored by fear. But in little moments, if he’s paying attention, glimpses of his intended life peek out, calling him to face his fear and become the man he was meant to be.

Michael Neale’s first novel reaches for that market William Young cracked five years ago with The Shack: Christianity for people who dislike liturgical language. Neale goes out of his way to show divine providence opening doors for his protagonist and making his path straight, without mentioning God. Even leaving aside how milquetoast this sounds, I never wrapped my head around Neale’s episodic, low-stakes style and clunky prose stylings.

Neale’s prose unrolls in an inelegant, declarative style that reminds us we’re reading a novel. Events simply happen to Gabriel; he rides along, a mere passenger. Neale amplifies this by his tendency to simply assert things to be true. Consider his character note on Gabriel’s father:
“With shaggy blond hair in a shag cut and a swagger to boot, he was a man of few words with wisdom beyond his years.”
Really? What does that mean? Neale never says; he throws that out there and expects us to accept it. In the same manner, Gabriel’s mother:
“Maggie had grown to love her son with all her heart, and she would never give up on him.”
The stray dog Gabriel adopts after it saves him from a rattlesnake:
“Rio gave Gabriel friendship and strength. Everyone could tell his confidence had grown, especially the boys at the pond.”
I could go on. Neale introduces every character and situation thus, mere assertions, never backed with action. This crafts a story in which audiences don’t feel very invested, because we don’t undertake the journey with Gabriel. I wanted to grasp Neale’s lapels and shout: “Don’t tell me what I should think! Show me what happens and let me share the experience!”

In a similar vein, Neale wants us to simply accept his assurance that Gabriel suffers with the shadows of his past. Gabriel makes weak choices time and again because he can’t face his lingering childhood fears. Neale asserts that “the grief, scars, and rejections that plagued his childhood and adolescence had led to on-again, off-again friendships with the other kids, but no deep friendships to rely on at the brink of adulthood.”

Again, I don’t know what that means, because Neale doesn’t show me. Nearly every chapter begins with Gabriel acting long in the tooth; nearly every chapter ends with some vague but uplifting life lesson in facing fears and shedding the chains of the past. This supposed grief is mere background noise, not actually comprised of anything that happens in my view. Were I to judge by what I see, notwithstanding his father, Gabriel’s life appears pretty good.

What background Neale does give us is so slipshod as to approach comedy. Gabriel grows up in a rural Kansas straight from Norman Rockwell, populated by walk-on characters with stereotyped names like Thelma Lou Nichols and Naomi Ledbetter. He misplaces both the Arkansas River and St. Louis, Missouri. Gabriel’s bucolic boyhood interactions resemble nothing so much as an Archie comic.

Through it all, Gabriel feels the call of The River, always spelled thus, with caps. Whether the Colorado, the Arkansas, or Soco Creek, every stretch of moving water is The River, which both holds him captive and offers him redemption. For Gabriel, every river is the Jordan River, with the Baptizer waiting for him to step into the current and be washed clean. Gabriel just needs to take that first step.

Nothing ever feels very important in this book. Though I’m sure Gabriel’s struggles seem large to him, as mine do to me, Neale never convinces me anything particularly significant is at stake. Because I don’t really go on the journey with Gabriel, I reach the end and feel nothing. Nothing.

Neale, a Dove award-winning Christian songwriter, is now on tour with The River Experience, a multimedia extravaganza anchored by this story. Considering Neale’s background in music, I bet it isn’t half bad, and he means this book primarily as the take-home for his concerts. If so, God bless. But without that context, this book feels anemic. It only reinforces my apathy toward religion for non-religious people.

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