Sunday, August 30, 2009

Digging Up Donald

"Did you throw open the doors of Heaven to one and all?"
"Don't be daft, it would fill up with Christians. What would Heaven be if there were Christians everywhere? We'd all have to watch our language."

On Fridays, the public library in town closes down early. There will be no checking out books after 5 PM. That means by the time I get out of work that day, the lot is empty and the doors are closed.

I say this because I have become a ravenous reader, going through books the way junkies go through their latest score. I rely on these forays into fantasy to, as I’ve said before, both build my own craft and escape the doldrums of a monotonously busy work week. In other words, finishing a novel on a Friday, if I have no new purchases handy, will leave me high and dry for the weekend and reduce me to perusing my ever-growing bookshelf at home for some retread reading material.

Recently, this very circumstance occurred, and I happened to pick up a book a friend of mine had written back in 2004 titled Digging Up Donald. I shrugged, grabbed it off the shelf, and read it for the first time in four years, when Steven Pirie, my friend and fellow author, sent me ten copies to sell at an international art exhibit that Artwiffy hosted back in ’05.

Boy, am I glad I did, because for a second read, this one blew me away. It is such a fantastic book, filled to the point of spilling over with horror, comedy, and mostly coming-of-age wisdom. The tone is wry and distinctly British, and anyone who ever enjoyed an episode of Monty Python or Black Adder – or maybe even Twin Peaks - will eat this up. I don’t know why I didn’t rave like this back when I first passed my eyes over the sentence, “It was biscuits at ten paces”, four years ago, because I knew even then that I loved it. Perhaps I wasn’t at a place in my life where I could fully appreciate it; or maybe I couldn’t find the proper words and confidence in those words to express myself accurately. Either case, that time is past, and now I am here to sing, baby, sing.

Digging Up Donald is the story of a family in the small English town of Mudcaster, a place that stands on the brink (and frontlines) of Armageddon. Demons have infiltrated the town, you see, and are planning a war that only the Family can stop – with the help of the peculiar and wholly original Donald, of course, for whom the book is named. There are quite a few funny instances where Mother and Father plan to get down and dirty with the whole business, all the while keeping true to their quaint, small-town British sensibilities. The situation with their daughter, Maureen, who is faced with losing something every woman of child rearing age fears, is played out tongue-in-cheek, and her relationship with her sheepish husband Brian is developed with a maestro’s display of wit and sexual metaphor. The townspeople, each of whom is distinct, add more than the story’s backdrop; they’re just as vital to the plot and feel as any of the major characters, which include, among others, the family’s quirky (and deceased) Uncle Norman and a wily, disembodied brain predisposed to acts of extreme violence.

As I said earlier, however, this is a coming-of-age story as much as anything, and to this point the central character is Robert, Mother and Father’s youngest child. His passage to adulthood is marked with the generalities usually ascribed to such tales – responsibility, exploration, loss, young love – only presented in an original and heartwarming fashion. Robert’s romance with Joan, the daughter of the Reverend Likewise (who might not be what he seems) is both sweet and filled with youthful daring, and proves to be a central cog in the resolution of the conflict. To juxtapose this, his rapport with The Grandmother (another shrewdly crafted character) surveys the duplicitous discord-versus-culture inherent with the coexistence of the older and younger generations. Their scenes together are painted with brutal honesty, yet there is a definite tenderness there when you peel away the outer layers.

The underworld is another thing of beauty, created out of a familiar mold and then flipped, upside-down, on the plate of pages. Wait until you see the rapport between the souls here, both lost and found. It’s sure to have you both rolling on the floor laughing and scratching you chin, saying, “huh, that makes sense.”

As a tale of the never-ending battle between good and evil, Digging Up Donald doesn’t forget to present the idea that, even in this fantasy world, not everything can (or should) be lathered in extreme shades of black and white. God is an overbearing father who seemingly doesn’t care too much about what goes on beyond his own gates, and the devil character is very polite with an irresistible swashbuckling charm. The demons are things we can loathe, laugh at, and feel sorry for, all at the same time. It also offers what I find to be a brilliant proposal; that this supposedly unending battle goes on for no other reason than the fact the particulars, the powers-that-be, aren’t forward thinking enough to realize there could be an end, presenting the immortals of both the upper and lower realms as creatures locked in a stubbornly ignorant perception of history.

Needless to say, this is one of the most intelligent, earnest, and hilarious books I’ve ever read. I’m not speaking (er, writing) in superlatives here. The only other novel I’ve completed which it compares to is Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins. I definitely recommend this to any and all audiences. Pick it up, and you won’t want to put it down until you’re finished.

Yes, gentle readers, it is that good.

You can purchase a copy of Digging Up Donald here.

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