BLOOD OF THE LAMB by Michael Lister
Michael Lister is too fond of stereotypes. In BLOOD OF THE LAMB, his protagonist, Chaplain John Jordan, proves a belief about alcoholism that borders on an Officially Approved Description, hyperbole put out by an organization like AA, whose message is as far from scientific truth as is the message from an intolerant, bible-thumping religious fanatic far from the truth about God. And Lister has one of those too, a televangelist named Bobby Earl Caldwell. Chaplain Jordan’s encounters with prison inmates, his childhood sweetheart, ex-wife, inlaws and parents are filled with superlatives, many of them ‘larger than life’ coded word pictures.
This book rates as one of my best new reads in 2006.
In spite of these superlatives, Chaplain JJ drifts in and out of soft focus, as we, the reader, grapple with our identifying with who he is. It was Michelangelo, I believe, who said that a sculpture is already hidden in a piece of marble; the artist’s job is simply to uncover it, rather like an archeologist digging for hidden pots long buried. In books, much more so than other artistic media, the reader/viewer participates in the discovery, in the gradual uncovering what has been hidden by its surroundings. The author’s juxtaposition of the well- and ill-defined cannot possibly be entirely intentional, some of the pictures are far too crude. Chaplain JJ’s attitudes drift from the familiar to not, comprehensible to not, acceptable to not; in fact, while reading JJ’s words, I am amazed by how much less the author must know about the world than I, and yet, moments later, how much the author has to teach me about the world.
Once embroiled, I believed I was more curious about JJ than the rest of the plot. That he is a Chaplain with an animosity toward organized religion is one of his charms. JJ speaks disdainfully about inmate behaviour from Big Ol’ Black Bruddas, side by side with his warm appreciation of old friends whom we discover, many pages later, just happen to be black. The Chaplain’s physical feats are entirely too superhuman, but his voice to the reader is filled with a suprising, beautiful humility.
I liked that I was more than three quarters through the book and was still learning the Chaplain’s backstory. Parts of the Chaplain’s story was dropped into chapters like nuggets of frosting on a cake, a mouthful of bursting sweetness, full of satisfying comprehension. Unfortunately, some writing made no sense; eventually I realized that, though this was my first encounter with Chaplain JJ, it was not Chaplain JJ’s first encounter with the author. Perhaps, in future novels, the author might make a hard edit with virgin readers in mind. Though I myself can never again be that reader, I am certainly willing to follow Chaplain JJ’s future with care
The plot is well-crafted, with several satisfying surprises. I had no urges to argue with the author about the path of the story, no tired sighs when I reached the author’s additions of plot complications. In retrospect, I have a few questions about why the author chose the specific path he did, and why he included some side issues, but as preachers have often told us, part of our beauty is in our very imperfection.