Jackalope Hill: 2021
There is a lot to say about Marty Phillips’ Let Them Look West. This book is a conversation starter, a bit of a Rorschach blot, pointing to themes that are not fully explored within the narrative itself. I get the impression that this book will be discussed more than it’s actually read, because the themes are bigger than the plot, bigger than any of the characters, and these themes trigger a strong response in those who of us who are alert to this kind of thing. Even the title seems like a sly admission that the book points to bigger things outside of itself. “Yes, yes, I threw out a lot of bait for the lads to ponder, but Let Them Look… outside my novel for answers.” This sort of ambiguity makes it a very chewy book, and somewhat unsatisfying on a first pass, but it is an important book to read.
It’s difficult to discuss a novel without giving some spoilers. So here: Rob Coen is a big-city writer sent on assignment to interview James Alexander, the governor of Wyoming, a fundamentalist Christian who has revived his state with (among other things) a Christian-themed public works program, and Mount Calvary, an artificial mountain which visitors climb up and pass the Stations of the Cross, then view a live-action recreation of the Cruxifiction, with music by a live choir.
The first few chapters until Rob meets Alexander feel like a deadpan satire of Apocalypse Now. Rob didn’t want a mission but for his sins he was given one. He’s a fish out of water who has to navigate and improvise his way to the goal. There’s a magical realism vibe to the book, despite nothing overtly supernatural occurring, and maybe this is why Philips calls it a “mundane fantasy.” But it’s also a mundane fantasy for the simple reason that the America and Wyoming described in the book are so beyond what is possible that suspension of disbelief is required. And this same suspension of disbelief helps the reader take a charitable view of wooden dialogue from some characters who seem like NPC guides through a strange dream. Which is a way of saying that Marty P. used his novice dialogue writing skills to their best advantage.
The story is also somewhat frustrating because it is a series of false climaxes. I had thought that Rob meeting Alexander would be like Martin Sheen finally rolling up on Marlon Brando’s jungle murder compound, but no. That the interview with Alexander would be the climax. That Rob’s tour of Mount Calvary would be the climax. Surely, Rob’s viewing of the recreation of the Passion must be the defining moment of the story. But no. There’s no showdown.
And this lack of a showdown raises an important point. Psychologically-speaking, the left and the right are different species. Not just in the Jonathan Haidt Moral Politcal Philosophy way, which observes that conservatives understand the liberal worldview, but disagree with it, whereas liberals lack the moral capacity to comprehend the conservative perspective and believe conservatives to be evil. Rather, I’m thinking about how the right, and especially the edgy-to-dissident right, is full of charismatic individuals inclined toward direct confrontation, longing for a final boss battle, as in a movie western. The kind who go out in a blaze of glory and have folk songs written about them. By contrast, the leftist urban bugman is an unimpressive individual, one of a legion of nameless, faceless nebbishes putting in the grind to defeat xir ideological enemies, but indirectly, passive-aggressively, remotely rather than face-to-face.
Rob Coen is one of these unimpressive individuals. And James Alexander is a man of the right, who once—or may still—long for that final boss battle. I’ll leave that there and let you read the book.
Future annotated editions of Let Them Look West may have footnotes with citations to essays elaborating on the questions evoked: the psychological difference between right and left, ancient ethnic rivalries, the larger and finer points of Christian theology and the differences in denominations, the Evangelical impulse toward unstructured public confession, the difference between money and currency, various points about legal and U.S. constitutional questions. Is Let Them Look West actually a novel or is it a very long short story? Let Them Look West points to a lot of questions for the curious to ponder.