Monday, July 15, 2013

Celebrate the Sinner by Steven Merle Scott

Celebrate the Sinner takes place against the backdrop of the lumber trade in Oregon during the Great Depression. The family featured doesn't put the “fun” in dysfunctional: Marie, the mother, is a lonely alcoholic with serious boundary issues; Merle, the father, is an entrepreneurial sort whom the reader never gets to know; Teddy, their son, copes. They move to a house that gives real meaning to the word “ramshackle” when Merle acquires a sawmill. The descriptive writing here is mostly very good; the reader is introduced to the cacophony and grit of living on an industrial site, the constant fear of fire, the broken men who work there. There are intermittent reminiscences by the now-elderly narrator, whose only pride is in his undiminished sexual prowess. He casts off wives and girlfriends when they become ill and just looks for the next hot encounter. These asides are jarring, because the reader is left trying to figure out how he got from here to there. We are witnesses to Teddy's difficult, but not friendless, childhood; his problems in school overcome by Miss Cherry, a kind teacher; his relationships with the various characters who work at the mill; his inquisitive mind.

A novel full of flashbacks and asides requires a lot of heavy lifting on the part of the author. The long passages about his father entering the business are interesting, but his use of the first person (“The question had to have caught Dad off guard”), and his references to minutiae that he, a young child, would have no way of knowing (“Dad's heart was pounding in his ears. Sweat tracked cold along his ribs.”) don't ring true. If his Dad was so standoffish, how did Teddy ever get to know these things about him? One cannot imagine his brusque, businesslike father offloading these stories to his young son. Teddy is sensitive and has a moral compass; in a book full of bridge metaphors the bridge between his youthful self and his narcissistic dotage is not at all discernible. The book may have been a better read if the author had chosen to make Teddy an unreliable narrator, though that is also a huge challenge.

Then there is the issue of editing. It always raises its ugly head: “'Mills burn,' Dad said, settling into a tone that Moses likely used when he spoke to the apostles from the mount, 'either through bad luck or bad judgment.'” I don't remember Moses having any apostles. There are misspellings of names, such as Buster Keaton's, and other little dents and nicks. There is not enough variety in the vocabularies of vastly different people.

My quibbles should not detract too much from the book's good qualities. The depictions of the lumber business, the bad deals, betrayals, and bootlegging, are excellent. The reader gets a window on a little-known part of life during the Great Depression.

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