The Freedom of Will
Stuart Hartill reviews a novel by Kenneth Clatterbaugh, pictured above.
Will Tillett is young, Texas born but abandoned soon after and raised in small town Louisiana by a kindly aunt and uncle, the fourth generation of an American preacher dynasty.
As the novel starts, his uncle’s traditional ministry is losing its last punters to the New World Prosperity Apostolic Life Congregation – an aggressive megachurch which has bought out the area and killed off all business rivals, both religious and secular. Will, understandably, wants to see more of the world, and his first step comes with the offer of a summer job at the Biblically-inspired Galilee Theme Park in West Texas.
This operation is run by yet another Christian entrepreneur, who is at great pains to explain that his name is “Reverend Shister, with a short ‘i’”.
Well, of course it is, how else would you pronounce it?
As American stories which begin with a young person on a road trip tend to do, this one quickly goes badly wrong. A tornado causes his pick-up truck to be hit by a flying car, driven by a young woman of similarly conservative Christian stock.
But this is just the beginning of a runaway train of life-changing adventures for both of them. Other elements include rival Christian militias, two lesbian nuns running a homeless shelter where the cook claims to get his recipes from outer space, the FBI, a visit to a Roswell UFO convention …. oh, and I almost forgot, the three legged hamster with a craving for Gideon bibles (eating them, not reading them).
It differs in two ways from what might otherwise be an undemanding comic read for a rainy holiday when the Internet is down and the pubs are shut. The first is Will’s inner conversation with an insighful (if sarky) character he begins the book addressing as God and ends it by calling Phil.
The second is that – key characters being practising (if often questioning) Christians from insular communities – much of the dialogue is theological discussion.
At first, I thought I’d wandered into a well-meaning attempt to explain (and maybe later debunk) some newer fads of Christianity, but I stuck with it. The major characters were likable enough even if, on their most earnest days, not folk to get stuck in a lift with.
The persistence paid off and, indeed, such fads get well and truly debunked. In fact, even putting aside the essentials like plot and interesting characters, Ken Clatterbaugh’s expositions of seemingly endless variants of the newer Christian evangelism and their internal disputes were entertaining enough in their own right.
The book ends with the happy young couple recognising their atheism, coming to terms with at least the more decent type of Christian and with all concerned resigned to “loving one another, helping those we can, and the common good” (as Will’s kindly uncle puts it). All in all, a slightly unusual slow burner but entertaining, informative and worth looking out for.
• This book arrived with a short note suggesting I might like to review it, but not the usual publisher’s blurb with author background and “helpful” precis of the plot for those too idle to actually read it.
On principle, I read it “blind” rather than research the author, who I now know to be Kenneth C Clatterbaugh, a recently retired Washington University philosophy professor with a particular, critical interest in modern concepts of masculinity like the men’s movement and Christian manifestations of the phenomenon such as the Promise Keepers, also the author of weighty tomes like Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity: Men, Women and Politics in US Society [Amazon].
I would still love to know if he ever kept a hamster, and if it ate Gideon bibles.