Reaching for the Infinite: Ryan Sherman on Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors

Lamb Bright Saviors, Robert Vivian, Bison Books, 2010

“Lamb Bright Saviors,” the second release in author Robert Vivian’s Tall Grass Trilogy, picks up right where his first entry – “Mover of Bones” – left off: in that Vivian is continuing to explore the psychological and spiritual journeys of the “average” person rather than returning to previous characters and plotlines. Although the storyline is pretty simple – while walking into a village a preacher dies while a young girl pulls a wagon full of bibles behind him; five people watch – the messages that Vivian is focused on lies within his observers’ mind as they react and reflect, presented in a non-linear, vague, and symbolic way that can be very difficult to identify; yet it’s also done in a way that each reader can pull some type of meaning out.

The entire novel is written in a series of monologues from a number of different characters’ perspectives, simultaneously capturing a unifying plotline as well as a greater unifying theme of challenges and efforts towards redemption in each character’s walk of life. From the first paragraph of the first monologue we are introduced to Vivian’s vision: “Every diner has one old man sitting at a booth next to the window, with what happened to him long ago buried so deep inside him it ends up in the lines of his wrinkled face.” Our young girl Mady walks into new town after new town and immediately recognizes the personification of the pain and regret combined with the longing, vacant stare of a man in need of redemption. Mady follows Mr. Gene, the preacher, through town after town, trying to offer salvation in the only way they know how; unfortunately, Mady admits, “Mr. Gene thinks he can preach in every town we go to, but the truth is most towns don’t understand a word he says. Most of the time people poke fun at him or try to pretend he isn’t there, and sometimes it doesn’t work out so well. That’s when the joy’s in danger and seems to go missing for a while.” This juxtaposition of despair and joy, of soul-searching with dismissive laughs or brush-offs, recurs throughout the narrative.

The four men who come across the dying preacher take him into the nearest house, one not totally coincidental to them. It is here that the rest of the linear story takes place, as we are introduced one by one to each of the four men – with a monologue devoted to each the dying preacher and the owner of the house, a blind woman. First we meet Oly, a man who tries hard not to laugh at the preacher, lives in a baseball dugout by himself with a stack of porn, and admits, “I did my Christian best not to look at the girl’s ass bending over like that, but I figured one clean sweep of her budding harvest wouldn’t hurt nobody, especially if my eyes didn’t linger there.” However, he does admit with regards to the other men, “They’re like brothers to me – I’d do anything for each one of them and have, time and time again.” As all in the room share the experience of watching the preacher die, Vivian sheds some light of the darker sides of personality with his stream-of-conscious style, capturing the simultaneous clash between black-humor thoughts and epiphany. He concludes Oly’s first section with the remark that “the preacher goes on dying and we, the others, every last one, look on like clueless fools who tried to fuck up Paradise only to find out there’s no way we ever the fuck could.”

The second man in the room, Yarborough, helps develop this dichotomy, as he confesses, “Even as a kid I was already a bad man. I knew it all along. I was just waiting for it to take shape inside me,” yet as the connection between the men and the blind woman is revealed, Yarborough reveals that that connection effected him in some indescribable way, as he “curled up in a ball, [his] back to her … [they] laid there side by side, neither one of [them] moving or saying a word.” Yarborough’s conclusion to his reflection develops the themes of regret and redemption by admitting, “Nothing’s changed in me. But the way she laid right next to me, see. The way she didn’t plead or beg or even cry. I just can’t get it out of my head for some reason.” Though nothing is immediately changed or corrected, the seed is planted.

The most powerful, dramatic, and jaw-dropping section has to be the first of Vivian’s portrayals of Munoz, a soldier who returns from Fallujah. Quiet before the preacher enters the town – as his buddies try to “get some war stories” – we are shown Munoz’s inner thoughts as he cycles through what happened to the runt of his unit, Corey Shindig, in an ambush by opposing forces. The fallout from these events leave Munoz nearly crippled with horror as he attempts to rectify his regrettable actions (or inactions) with his promise to Shindig, a promise he has every intention of keeping. At the risk of any spoilers, I won’t reveal anything more; needless to say, it’ll take your breath away.

The last of the men, Gus, struggles with reconciling what he sees and what he thinks with what he does and what he says (or cannot say). Gus observes his friends and displays some semi-hypocritical judgments about each: Oly – “I never thought one of my best friends would end up living in a dugout with weeds sprouting up along the first base line, addicted to everything you can think of and sleeping it off each night next to towering stacks of bug-eyes hardcore porn. It makes me embarrassed for him and ashamed”; Munoz and Yarborough: “I don’t know about [them] because they’ve been away to prison or the war for so long – and these have made them go deeper into themselves, like ingrown toenails, suspicious of everyone they meet and keeping people they talk to in front of them where they can see their every move.” Yet mixed in with these observations Gus relates stories of his own addiction, recklessness, and interpersonal withdrawal, saying, “Sometimes I drive down country roads with Oly and we have a case of Bud in the back. Oly brings along his .30 -.30.” He covers his body with tattoos because they tell a “story of violence and a story of waste, a story of not knowing where to turn before the light turns green and you’re all alone.” Withdrawn or suffering from a lack of communication skills (because he dropped out of school and never got his GED?), Gus concludes, “I have 140 tattoos on my body all told, and I wish I had more skin to somehow say the things I want to scream and describe.” Despite these possibly hypocritical statements, Gus does seem to be one of the most thoughtful and observing characters, relating in perfect Vivian fashion – a statement that could sum up the theme of the whole book – “You can’t go back and change what you did, but you can sit awhile and pay attention to the light when it comes, listening to the blind lady’s footsteps like they’re tapping out some mysterious code.”

Religious language and symbolism pervades every description, every statement, every thought – the preacher cries out when he is dying, “Jesus is a hitchhiker on the side of the road”; “I told them Damascus ran along I-80 out to Denver and beyond”; “State Farm doesn’t cover divine sightings, but Jesus is there in the corner of every policy, hiding in plain sight” – he even begins a mini-poem with the line, “Lamb bright saviors, what has become of you? Are you going to die on the highway like the rest of them?” The reader, like the people there in the room, view this as what: lunacy? prophecy? blasphemy? Yarborough, adding to this notion of Godliness versus Evil in a more lucid manner, remarks, “They tell you in prison or church there’s a way you can be saved or rehabilitated, but what they don’t know is that not everyone can even be reached, let alone saved.” Gus compares Oly’s idea of Nebraska coach Tom Osborne to Christ walking on water; Munoz describes the voice coming through the P.A. in Fallujah as the voice of God coming down from the sky; and references abound in nearly every paragraph to some type of religious theme: memories while viewing a Holocaust film, a light shining through the roof of a barn that a character names Glory Be, a car that is worshipped like a woman, a face glowing like a halo. Again, what does this all add up to? It’s never made clear, exactly; but it’s hard to argue that Vivian’s novel doesn’t speak to readers, even if the message it carries is determined by each reader individually. Vivian demonstrates great ambition with his unifying themes, spreading over all the non-linear sections, focusing on such vague, complex, misunderstood, and pure notions of religion, belief, redemption, struggle, and – hopefully – salvation.

Despite the magnitude of scope with Vivian’s themes and the successful impact of such spiritual symbolism, I feel that it is impossible to dismiss one key area: character authenticity. As a story, with heavy symbolism and a non-linear message, the major themes do come through, and they are felt; however, I also feel like under the weight of these intentions, a portion of the sections sag with the bloated responsibility of conveying multiple plotlines. These “confessionals” are filled with such language, symbolism, and questioning – all bringing up the religious nature of the preacher, the girl, and their own concerns with faith – that their own individual stories seemed to lose a bit of authenticity: would an ex-con who’s spent a life of crime, abuse, and imprisonment really take this lurching preacher seriously when he says he came here to die for them? In the preacher’s dying speech, he calls the group of men “lambs;” their reactions to it seem to be the most extreme but unbelievable part of this entire novel. Oly – a drug-addicted, jobless, delusional man living in a baseball dugout – wants to turn his life around because “Nobody ever called me a lamb before, but the funny thing was, it fit like a glove”? Munoz runs out of the house and then speaks aloud in his truck, simply wondering, not dismissive in the slightest, “I look like a lamb to you? What do you think Corey? Maybe there’s a grain of truth in it somewhere… You never know, Shin, you never can tell.” Yarborough responds to the preacher’s claim with outrage and anger, yet goes within three pages from saying, “Fuck the human race” and “I never asked for forgiveness. It ain’t yours to give… I don’t intend on being no lamb” to “If you came all the way out here and been practicing this for years, then a part of it must be true. So we are. What you told us. We are loved. Okay. We are broken. All right. We are your brothers, your sons, your brides to be. Fuck if it makes any sense. Okay, all right then. I’ll believe you. I’ll believe what you said was true.” The characters’ believability isn’t completely destroyed through such reactions, but there appears to be many aspects of each character’s journey through guilt, responsibility, recognition, and redemption that are glossed over as a way of creating the unifying theme. Does it fit Vivian’s vision and end with a possibility of hope? Definitely. But if these characters are intended to represent the “average struggling person,” are these thoughts and reactions something a typical person would truly experience? Maybe in context with the rest of the novel, it doesn’t matter if they are not.

Regardless, it’s clear to see that Vivian is reaching for the infinite, the timeless, the universal. Does he grasp it firmly in two hands? No. But as a reader, you have to love someone that tries, that pushes the boundaries of the written word in an effort to show humanity, our world, united – with all its struggles, beauties, and confusions – divine and interconnected.

Creativity in The Other Genre: Jen Knox on Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire

Between Panic and Desire, Dinty W. Moore, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 2010

Dinty W. Moore brings a lot of well-deserved attention to the genre of creative nonfiction. He is the founding editor of Brevity, one of the first literary journals to highlight the art of creative nonfiction in short form, and he serves on the editorial board of Creative Nonfiction. Further, he teaches his craft at Ohio University, and has published two memoirs, The Accidental Buddhist and the subject of this review, Between Panic and Desire.

Knowing most of this background going in (I visited Moore’s website for a few of the aforementioned details), I had high hopes and an admitted bias toward the text. I began to read thinking, “Alright, Dinty, show me how it’s done.”

Between Panic and Desire is a memoir in parts. The book begins by way of explanation, introducing a philosophy that interweaves throughout Moore’s light-hearted, digressive prose. In the prologue, Moore recounts his curiosity about two Pennsylvania towns, one named Panic; the other, Desire. He visits each town out of sheer curiosity, in an attempt to find the origin of their names. Although the information Moore finds is minimal, this narrative introduction sets a cozy stage. As Moore sits in his car, half way between Panic and Desire, he comes to a realization: “I have been here all my life.”

This insight is rather transparent, and although it is a depiction of an actual event, the sappiness of it almost caused me to stop reading. But the art of nonfiction is not about metaphor or interpretation. It’s about narration, dynamic insight, humor, curiosity and a certain sense of inclusion the reader seeks—the sense that the author is confiding in his reader. So, I continued reading. When I reached the introduction, which included a mnemonic disclaimer and the author’s reasoning for writing the book (both seem a requisite for the genre), I got a taste of what was to come: humorous insight, self deprecating asides, an odd assortment of pop trivia and a drawing. Moore makes connections between societal norms and social blunders (including playful commentary on an exchange between Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Gene Simmons), personal reflections and emotionally-driven interpretations, and I came to realize Moore’s narration is not sappy at all it’s just devoid of pretension.

If I finish a memoir (admittedly, I often don’t—I’m persnickety when it comes to the genre), it is inevitable that I have pieced together some portrait of the author by the time I close the book. But it didn’t take too many pages of Moore’s experimental prose before I felt this portrait emerging. I’ve never personally met Dinty W. Moore, but as I read his memoir I began to imagine a man who’d make a pleasant dinner companion. I imagine he laughs often and loudly, and that his capacity for conversation is dizzying as he seems capable of transitioning from mundane chit chat about the weather forecast to in-depth commentary about the socioeconomic impact of his choice to order the asparagus over corn at a Midwestern diner. Perhaps I’m wrong. But the very fact that I have such a detailed (albeit wholly imagined) portrait of the writer after reading his work proves that my expectations were met—Moore knows how to create a strong narrative presence.

I was impressed by Moore’s swift, witty style and his willingness to share candid analysis of, well, everything without spending a single sentence disclaiming his stance or apologizing for the connections he draws. He executes the art of digression by using a myriad of forms: essays, plays, a list and a quiz. The cohesion of theme—the pendulum swinging between panic and desire—allows Moore to tie personal experiences (and reactions) to societal norms (and abnormalities) in a frank and humorous manner.

Although I still wish that I wasn’t force-fed that initial thematic portrait of being stuck between two extremes (towns), Moore’s authorial voice quickly redeems itself. After all, the beauty of this genre is not found in the conclusions the author draws; it’s found in the ideas and experiences that allow the reader to understand how he came to them. And Moore takes his initial image: him, relaxing in a car that is parked between panic and desire, and drives it home in an extremely entertaining and dynamic way.

Jen Knox is the author of Musical Chairs, a memoir. She earned her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars and currently works as a fiction editor at Our Stories Literary Journal and a Creative Writing Professor at San Antonio College. Jen’s short essays and fiction can be read in Flashquake, Foundling Review, Metazen, Slow Trains, SLAB, and Superstition Review. Jen grew up in Ohio and lives in Texas, where she is working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger.