Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Who Begat Whom

Q: At the Pen Festival, you mentioned that all writers are also great readers. What books did you read to help you to write this book in particular?

A: Thanks, for the question. I hope I understand you correctly. You don't want me to list books that have inspired me as a writer and authors whose styles I have admired and emulated. You want me to narrow it down to just this book, JESUS BOY. Okay. I'll try, though there is not always a direct line from influence to inspiration to creativity to the completed work. In reality it is usually a lot fuzzier than that, but here goes.

John Cheever's short story, "The Country Husband"

Garrison Keillor's novel, LAKE WOBEGONE DAYS (his radio show "Prairie Home Companion" in general)

Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD (her southern gothic work in general)

Gordon Parks's novel, THE LEARNING TREE

William Faulkner's LIGHT IN AUGUST

Philip Roth's Novella and collection, GOODBYE, COLUMBUS AND OTHER STORIES (Roth's early work in general)

James Baldwin's GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN

THE KING JAMES BIBLE

And there are many others, I'm sure, but these days listing is very difficult for me. I forget so many things--thank god for Google. Did I mention Langston Hughes? Did I mention THE LORD OF THE RINGS? Elwyn's name, which means ELF FRIEND, is taken straight from Tolkien's masterwork trilogy. Kind of ironic that a holy ghost Judeo Christian would have a name derived from Pagan Germanic myth.

Kind of ironic how Protestants would get their start in Catholicism.

Kind of ironic how Christianity would get its start in Judaism.

Kind of ironic that Jews and Arabs (according to their religions's histories) are first cousins descended from Jacob and Essau (or Isaac and Ishmael, I forget right now--I guess I could Google it--maybe I will later).

Everything is ironic when you look BACKWARDS, which we are forced to do because we are born as children not as adults. But when you finally read your history and you are able to start back there and then look FORWARD to where you are now, it's not ironic at all. It just becomes sad and very, very human, and the quote "Those who forget their history are dooomed to repeat it," begins to make a heck of a lot of sense. We forget that we are all one family.

I hate you because your religion is strange and conflicts with my beliefs. We forget that our religion came from yours. I hate you because your name is funny and your language is weird. We forget that our language came from yours, or one just like yours.

Elwyn hates the Holy Rollers, the rival religion of his group the Faithful, not realizing that a hundred years ago the Faithful and the Holy Rollers were the same faith, as evidenced by the inscriptions in the pews in the Big Church in Lakeland--both religions have the fame founding elders.

For more of the history of Elwyn's church, check out the short story "God Awaits the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters" in the wonderful online magazine ASILI:

http://asilithejournal.com/ASILI/VOLUMES/Vol%20V-1/PrestonAllen.htm

And that whole idea of the importance of history is one of the important recurrent themes in the novel. In fact, the novel has a list of BEGATS . . . just like the Bible does.

The Bible tells us in several places to respect our elders. One of the Ten Commandments famously tells us to "Honor thy mother and thy father that thy days may be long." Indeed you should respect those those things that brought you into the world, those things from which you are descended, those things that made you, those things that shaped you, those things that protected and nourished you before you could do it for yourself. Shame on you if you do not honor that which made you.

By the same token, I kinda like being a Protestant Christian . . . why then, should I not honor Catholicism? Judaism? Hmmmmmmm?

It's getting kinda deep, and I am tempted to extend the analogy to race and ethnicity and nationality, but I will leave that up to you to do.

It all brings me back to my favorite bible hero Jesus Christ, whose whole message was about love.

"Love Your neighbor as yourself."

Sitting in our churches on Sunday, we seem, for whatever reason, to forget this commandment all the time. Organized religion these days is about many things--and many of them good--but rarely are they about love.

Love is too hard. It is human nature to make enemies. It is human nature to focus on the destruction of that enemy.

But love is hard. Love leads to death, sometimes.

Christ came with a message of love, and he was willing to die for it.

We need not be so dramatic as all that, however. Just strive everyday to remember how we are all connected as part of this big human family and that will be enough.

Strive to remember that who ever begat your enemy is related to who ever begat you.

We're all in this together.

Thanks,

Preston

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ariel Gonzalez Interviews Preston L. Allen on WLRN radio

Religion has often played a role in Preston L. Allen's fiction, but perhaps never more so than in his new novel, "Jesus Boy." Set in Florida, it follows a group of black fundamentalists who have trouble distinguishing the sacred from the profane. Allen has won praise for his accessible style, raunchy wit, and compassion for human foibles.

Literary contributor Ariel Gonzalez spoke with Allen. He began by asking him why there was so much sex in his work. The interview begins with Allen's reply.

Reading at the Pen Festival 2010

May-June 2010, New York, NY

Preston L. Allen reading at the Pen with Javier Cercas, Siri Hustvedt, Karl O. Knausgaard, Anne Landsman, Thomas Pletzinger, Monique Proulx, Lee Stringer, Christos Tsiolkas, and Tommy Wieringa

Book Review: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography



Regular readers know that I believe the key to a successful novel to be the combination of an exciting plot and deep characterization; but if I'm forced to choose only one or the other in any particular book, I think it's clear by now that I generally prefer the former over the latter, in that stories featuring barely-defined characters doing interesting things tend to be inherently more entertaining in my head than ones where interesting people sit around doing nothing. So I'm always excited, then, when I come across the rare character-heavy novel that I end up liking quite a bit; take for example the recently released Jesus Boy by Florida professor Preston L. Allen, author of the previous gambling novel All Or Nothing which also garnered quite a bit of praise, both of which were put out by our pals at Akashic Books, who in the last few years has seemed almost incapable of making a wrong move. I thought today, then, I would take the opportunity to do an actual analytical examination of what makes this such a great character-driven novel when so many others fail so spectacularly at it, as a way of hopefully passing along a few tips to fellow writers out there who are struggling over the same issues; because believe me, Jesus Boy is an almost textbook example of how to put together an intriguing and page-flipping yet plot-light story, and it's no wonder that Akashic signed this despite it having little to do with the subversive culture and hipster characters that define most of the other titles in their catalog.

As you can imagine, step one with books like these is to create a fascinating milieu for your characters to inhabit, which Allen does: he in fact sets this book within the world of radical Protestant churches in rural south Florida with mostly black congregations, the kinds of groups with names like "The Holy Rollers" who consider even Southern Baptists to be timid wannabes, and who create elaborate conservative moral codes for their members which often contradict themselves in their specific rules. And indeed, that's what makes this milieu so fascinating, is that as human beings, the desires of these groups' members often come into direct conflict with the restrictive code of behavior they are trying to maintain; and this is in fact what Allen mostly examines in Jesus Boy, the various ways that the private lives of his expansive cast betray their public lives as the religiously pious, and the ways these schisms affect the long-term lives of these characters over the course of approximately half a century and several generations, from roughly the Jim Crow 1940s to the hiphop 1990s.

Now of course, this particular milieu is also ripe for easy, lazy stereotyping -- after all, it's these organizations that spawn most of our nation's televangelists -- which leads to my second tip concerning such novels, that they require not only fascinating environments but unique and compelling looks at these environments; and this Allen also does, centering the tale around the complex "Jesus Boy" of the book's title, a naturally gifted piano player who was hailed by his church at a young age as a zealous musical warrior for God, and who then struggles for the rest of his life over the balance between his spirituality and his heathen side, complicated even further by his decades-long secret relationship with a MILF-like older church member (during their first tryst, he's 16 and she's 42), as well as his manytimes humorous multicultural adventures at the secular state university he ends up attending. This then leads us to a closer examination of his lover as well, who turns out to have had a very similar experience in her past but that time playing the younger role, which as the novel progresses we learn is tied in complicated ways to the muddled lives of all the other characters, which then drops us down the rabbithole of how crazy and screwed-up all these relationships within the church are, filtered by such factors as pre-civil-rights

segregation, the expectations of "manliness" within African-American society, the disconnect between what we want and what we can have, and of course the all-important public face of respectability that members of the church are expected to wear at all times.

This then nicely leads us to my third tip concerning character-heavy novels, that if you're to attempt a story light on action scenes, it's important to make those scenes count for as much as possible; and it's here that Allen really shines, in that like Michael Chabon, all of his well-placed plot-oriented moments serve as true catalysts for twisting the entire story in a new direction, delivering by the end what's still a deep character study but that is quickly-paced and always inspires you to excitedly wonder what's next, whether that's the occasional fistfight or discovery of infidelity, a flight from the law or the disgrace of a popular preacher. And that of course leads to my fourth tip concerning such books, the one probably best known already, that when you choose to write a story based mostly on character, it helps to give that story a strong sense of personal style as well; and here too Allen is just great, penning the entire manuscript in a way that's both poetic and easy to read, and with a sly humor that complements very well the unhurried Southern story he's telling.

Add all these things up, like I said, and you have that special rare character-oriented novel that reads like an airport thriller, not just lively and entertaining but that gets you thinking about all kinds of subjects for the first time, or at least thinking about them in new ways. As with many recent Akashic books, I suspect that Jesus Boy will be popping up again in one of my best-of lists at the end of the year, and it comes highly recommended today whether or not you're a natural fan of character-heavy stories or fundamentalist Christians.

Out of 10: 9.3

by Jason Pettus

Review of Jesus Boy by Geoffrey Philp, Author of Who's Your Daddy and Other Stories

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, Preston Allen writes Jesus Boy, a story about a young Christian, Elwyn Parker, who falls in love with an older woman, Elaine Morrisohn, a matriarch in the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. In many ways this was a difficult book to review, not only because Preston Allen is my friend and colleague at Miami Dade College, but also because of my own history with fundamentalist Christianity and Preston’s ability to depict the tortured consciousness of a teenage true believer at war with his faith and his flesh:

"At sixteen, I met my first great temptation, and I yielded with surprisingly little resistance, I who had proclaimed myself strong in the Lord. There had been, it seems, a chink in my armor, through which Satan had thrust his wicked sword" (34).

And as if dealing with his hyperactive conscience wasn’t enough, Elwyn’s plight is exacerbated by Elaine Morrisohn’s deliberate pursuit of him, even during church services:

"As she sat down with a satisfied smile on her face, she knew she was being naughty. She shouldn’t have shouted like that, but she was trying to send him a message by shouting like she did during orgasm…She just wanted to rip off her clothes and fly to him. He was so tight and so fresh and so full of juice…he was a lean, strong fresh-tasting black boy—he looked good enough to eat" (77).

But Elwyn wants to be saved. Desperately. Yet the God that Elwyn serves is a God of wrath who is eager to punish sinners, especially women who wear pants or jewelry and who listen to “worldly” music. Growing up in this kind of environment Elwyn becomes a holier-than-thou preacher—an attitude that he exhibits long after he has left the fold:

"God’s people have to be apart. They have to be different. Christians these days—I don’t understand them at all. They go to parties, they drink, they have premarital sex, they wear the fashions of the world. Even the music. These days you can’t tell the difference between a church song and hip hop" (361).

What is remarkable about Jesus Boy is Allen’s use of point of view. He writes as an insider, someone who knows the secrets within the black community and reports the intimacies of people who want to live, love, and praise God. And he does this without resorting to stereotypes or clichés. Allen explores the black family and black religion without the filters of white validation, effectively banishing the "double consciousness" theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. The characters in Jesus Boy exist in a milieu in which whites exist peripherally. Jesus Boy asserts without rancor: This is our story.

And this perhaps is one of the major accomplishments of the novel. Allen uncovers the hypocrisies within the black church in the way that James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain exposed the vision of its adherents—a world divided not along racial lines, but between the “saved” and the unsaved. And because being “saved” requires denial of the most basic human impulses, the “saved” are always in state of guilt over the state of their soul:

"Demons, I was certain, frolicked in my room after the lights were turned off. At night, I watched stricken with fear, as the headlights of passing automobiles cast animated shadows on the walls of my room. Only God, who I believed loved my singing voice, could protect me from the wickedness lurking in the dark. Thus, I sang all of God’s favorite tunes—hummed when I didn’t know the words—in order to earn his protection" (13).

There is much to admire about Jesus Boy. From the cover designed like an old family Bible to the genealogy list of the begetting that took place in Elwyn’s family, the novel has hints of Faulkner with an oversexed patriarch and a family history of incest, abuse, and illicit romance. Preston Allen has truly written what Dennis Lehane has deemed a “tender masterpiece.”

***

Preston L. Allen, a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel All or Nothing (Akashic) and the award-winning collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Penguin), Miami Noir (Akashic), and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic). He lives in South Florida.

The Spectator: Review of Jesus Boy

BOOK: ‘Jesus Boy’ by Preston L. Allen

If the church’s name isn’t intense enough, Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon The Waters has an intense set of rules and lifestyle regulations to match in Preston Allen’s latest novel.

The novel follows one Elwyn Parker, a member of the Our Blessed Redeemer congregation who firmly abides by its teachings: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no secular music and no pants for women. But of course the story doesn’t just explicate the strictness of the church; it explores the turmoil running beneath its surface, and the primal urges common to all of its members. These primal urges compel Parker to explore the taboo topics that exist outside of his church’s borders—which means just about everything non-religious that life has to offer.

The book is equal parts an exploration of church-sexy and sex-sexy, and it provides an intriguing, sometimes gripping glance into the psychology of a person wrestling with the nature of religiously-imposed restriction.

Mission Statement

Here's how it works. You email me at PrestonTheWriterAllen@gmail.com, and I will answer all of your questions about the book or the writing process in general. So hurry up and read the book and start sending me questions.

Analytics

HTML Java

Followers

About Me

Miami, Florida, United States
According to Author's Den: "He cut his teeth on the classics of the golden age of science fiction, the lurid bestselling thrillers of the sixties and seventies, and the Holy Bible (King James Version). He grows up to pen fiction that rages with truth and insight--a master of erotica, thrillers, romance, noir, Preston L. Allen is America's writer. So let it be written, so let it be read."