Reviewed by Clive S Johnson
Life is not going too well for Rod, something his Jewish parents may not have anticipated when they gave him the name Herodotus. Within a short time, a week or so; his wife’s left him, he’s discovered he owes the IRS $8,000 and his bookstore burns down, with him asleep in its above-shop apartment – the point at which the reader joins the story.
Could it get worse? Perhaps so. Maybe a speeding ticket, on his way to stay at his brother’s ranch, might be small fry, but it’s yet another pointer towards disillusionment with life. The heat of the Mojave Desert doesn’t help either, and certainly not when his Toyota suddenly breaks down. Fortunately, it’s just outside the only property for miles around – a large white mansion. Strange? You can say.
There begins a rather unexpected diversion in Rod’s journey through life, one that carries him and the reader into something of a modern-day version of Alice’s Wonderland. No white rabbits, no, but a non-melting snowman on the front lawn marks the start of a series of yet more bizarre events.
The stage is clearly set, the markers in place, the pointers aimed at something beyond a simple tale, much more a fable of sorts. It’s a fable with an intriguing and eminently plausible foundation, one that stretches from human foibles, failings and misunderstandings all the way through gods to the very nature of the universe – and life’s place in it.
Does it work as a fable? In its premise and exposition; eminently so. In fact, it has a surer footing than most traditional fables, for it presents a wholly plausible and hugely down to earth (excuse the pun) explanation for the highly noble conclusion to which it leads.
Here, though, we hit upon a bit of a weakness in an otherwise very well-crafted and engaging book. The story is, as most fables are, a series of situations – small episodes, hard-learned lessons along the way to an ultimate understanding. Perhaps Stephen Goldin intended them to be somewhat opaque, open to interpretation, but I found them too weakly connected.
Maybe I missed a thread of significance in each, maybe it will hit me at some time later, but a day after reading the book I still feel that it lacked cohesion. It seemed that the author planned to carry the reader to a climax, but then somehow failed to keep them in his grasp. It didn’t spoil the reading, no, certainly not, for it kept me turning the pages nonetheless, but it did weaken the book’s lasting effect.
There are perhaps yet more similarities to Lewis Carroll’s adventures of Alice, in that nearly all the characters are quite shallow, more cyphers for the tale’s telling than people with whom the reader is expected to empathise, even the protagonist himself. It does help to make the story otherworldly, though, which I suspect was the author’s intent. The downside is that the reader is less inclined to take Rod’s fate too much to heart. But then, the tale’s riveting enough without it and so well worthy of recommendation.
And does Rod finally find his place in life, does he indeed perhaps see his and our place in the grand scheme of things? Well, as they say, to know yourself is to know your own history, and his parents did name him after an eminent Greek – Herodotus, the Father of History.
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