One of the great things about surprises is ... they're a surprise. I recently had a birthday, and was delighted to receive a gift in the mail from a friend. One of the items in the parcel was this curious novel by Daniel Quinn.
I have to admit I had never heard of Daniel Quinn. His books Ishmael, The Story of B and My Ishmael form a trilogy that seems to have been quite influential in the 1990s. Ishmael apparently won the Turner Fellowship of Tomorrow Award (which I hadn't heard of) and inspired a Pearl Jam song 'Ishmael' (which I'd never heard). Everything about this book and its author constituted a surprise for me, then!
I was even more surprised when I opened the book to the title page and saw this:
Hey! What the heck? A tarot card! I closed the book, checked the covers front and back. The word 'tarot' was nowhere to be seen. I looked at the Library of Congress cataloguing: 1. Fate and fatalism - Fiction: 2. Middle aged men -- Fiction. 3. Midlife crisis -- Fiction. 4. Temptation -- Fiction.
So okay. I turn to the prologue. Boom!
Huh. Well, how about that. I flip through the rest of the book and at the beginning of each section, without explanation, a RWS tarot image: 7 of Swords, The Fool, 2 of Pentacles, Page of Swords, 5 of Swords, The Sun. Hmm.
Of course I had to start reading it straightaway, and didn't stop reading it for the next two days and just now finished it and have come to tell you about it. Let's just say this is no James Patterson (thankfully). It's no Dion Fortune, either (also not a bad thing). I'm not sure what it is, but I kept reading to try to find out. It's got a little bit of everything -- shades of Stephen King, bit of crime, bit of the old Dennis Wheatley vibe, a little of this, a little of that and ta da! a tarot reader.
Just to give you the premise...two old Jewish men in Chicago meet in a gentleman's club. One, Aaron, is wealthy and has a commission on his mind. The other, Howard, is a private detective nearing his retirement who is of a particularly practical bent and has been chosen by Aaron for a preposterous case: find out about 'the gods'. Aaron points out that according to the Bible, for 600 years, the Jews disobey God by worshiping Baal, Moloch, and Ashtaroth, among others. The Bible never says they aren't real. It says they are 'false', meaning they are not to be trusted. Aaron wants Howard to investigate, eschewing religious scholarship and expertise, and see what he can find out about the actual existence of these 'gods'. Are they dead? What are they? Find them.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, a remarkably aware little boy called Tim, and his dad David, have caught the attention of these 'Others' and the lives of Howard, Tim, David and a few more people get wound up together in a bizarre and tangled knot that is never quite satisfactorily unwound, despite the labours of author, Daniel Quinn.
The premise of the book intrigued me, and I was pleased that the tarot reading, which happens early in the novel, is matter-of-fact and realistic. It is very much like a reading I, or any of the real-life tarot readers that I know, would give. (The cards illustrated in the book are the cards from the reading -- I won't tell you more than that, other than that the reading is done for Howard about his mission!). However, I found that the narrative contained quirky and lengthy digressions that did little to move the plot forward and made me feel impatient. The 'Others' disappointed me. I don't know why I was expecting a novel to reveal something to me about these 'Others' (who might equally be characterised as gods, demons, angels, fairy folk, fey, etc.) The book will affirm the notions of those with an earth-based spirituality and ecological ideology. If there's anything else there, it remains as hidden from me as those secrets supposedly revealed in Dion Fortune's books. But I don't think there's a hidden message there. It's a fairly heavy-handed one.
It's an odd book with a mildly unsettling vibe, it gets a little silly in places, and frustrating at times when it glosses things I wanted to learn more about (what was Tim's gift and what did the Others have planned for him?), while expanding on things I grew impatient with (do I need a character talking for pages about the details of nuclear fusion in a meth lab trailer in the middle of the desert when there are fey running around kidnapping people? Hardly!). Nevertheless, the story kept my interest and also led me to get out a tarot deck and fiddle around with it, so that's all right then. :)