THE DEVIL AND DANIEL SILVERMAN
By Theodore Roszak
Leap Frog Press, 329 pages, $15.95
For starters, what is a gay, Jewish humanist writer named Daniel Silverman, from San Francisco, doing accepting a speaking engagement at the evangelical Faith College in North Fork, Minn.?
According to Silverman’s no-nonsense agent Hanna, it’s all for a badly needed twelve grand, that’s what, a fee he doesn’t dare refuse now that his cachet has fallen in the literary world. About the speech, Hanna cautions, “Just make it not so Jewish ... A little Jewish is okay.” And, she reminds him, Silverman’s sequin-chemise wearing black boyfriend Marty of many years is absolutely out!
Not unlike a fairytale, wherein interdictions are introduced only later to be violated, Berkeley author Theodore Roszak sets the trap of searing social critique about the dark, myopic side of religion, taking on with guns loaded the zealotry of the religious right that relies on a party line of intolerance and hatred.
Silverman’s hosts, the Swensons, at first appear to be genuinely interested in exchanging ideas, but not so, Silverman discovers, with the rest of the Free Reformed Evangelical Brethren in Christ who ferociously adhere to a single-minded notion of a vengeful God. Their way is the only right way, and everyone else is going to hell. Not surprisingly, the premise means that Silverman is ambushed by a lineup of characters, including homophobes and Holocaust deniers, not the least of which are embodied in the avid gay-hater Mrs. Blore and the virulent Jew-hater the Reverend Apfel, who informs Silverman the Holocaust has been grossly over-exaggerated and an invention of the “liberal Jewish media.” In fact, the Holocaust, for many at Faith College, refers to aborted fetuses, pictures of whom are presented like the slaughter of the innocents.
So as our rough beast from Sin City slouches toward the podium to deliver his talk, every wary eye in the house is on him. Given his rising dismay and anger to the verbal assaults he’s endured, Silverman, who was never the “good Jew” his religious Grandpa Zvi had always hoped he would be, feels compelled now to confront the savagery of his audience’s bigotry toward Jews, toward gays, et cetera. I won’t give the delicious text of the speech away, but let’s just say that afterward, pandemonium breaks out, with a near riot.
But Silverman, poised for quick flight, is in for another surprise. The overnight has been turned upside down by the Minnesota weather gods, who now conspire with a blizzard of Wagnerian proportions that makes escape impossible. Post-speech, the instant pariah Silverman is consigned to his room and the library, a virtual prisoner of Faith College. Desperate, he debates his options when three students, known as the committee for the Religious Humanism Studies Program, cautiously approach Silverman to praise him for his bravery. They fear for themselves and ask for his help in escaping the college. “You think I’m running an underground railroad?” says Silverman. “Give me a break.” (p 245)
Inflected with humor, the book functions as a contemporary parable about intolerance and bigotry, and the dangers of subscribing to any philosophy that insists you cease to think broadly and critically.
Its scathing indictment of the nasty power of the Christian right hits the bull’s-eye in today’s political climate. It is a timely story, openly challenging notions of what passes for “religion.” Roszak doesn’t hesitate to meet mean-spirited, narrow-minded bigotry head on, taking the opportunity to explore also the tenets of Judaism and Silverman’s conflicts with his own humanist vision. The moral of the tale is underscored throughout with bumper sticker conciseness: “There is no room for intolerance.”
At times Roszak seems to push too hard to make his point, and the characters occasionally lapse into the allegorical, more like embodiments of abstract ideas, without sufficient complexity. At times the deck is so stacked, particularly in his representation of the Christian Midwest, that the story loses some of the power it might have gained if we were seduced at first by the “banality of evil,” a picturesque small town, which perhaps might have initially invoked nostalgic Rockwell-esque images. The premise seems pitched to an “already enlightened,” reader (presumably someone from the Bay Area whose cue is to nod in agreement, but who is never really implicated the way, say, the reader in a Flannery O’Connor story is. As a result, the higher moral ground is too easily reached. Having lived in both the Bay Area and the Midwest (and there is arguably a good deal of anti-gay, racist sentiment floating around), I think Roszak missed an opportunity to explore the converse of stereotypes associated with each locale. Certainly the Bay Area has its share of the religious right, and the Midwest has plenty of leftist activists.
While the Swenson character obviously is meant to stand in some contrast to the openly bigoted zealotry of other characters at Faith College, a more balanced exploration of systems of belief might have yielded an even more terrifying cautionary tale. Openly hate-filled bigots wielding signs with aborted fetuses, as disturbing as that image is, are not nearly as frightening as those whose bigotry and intolerance manifest themselves in far more subtle and insidious ways, often under the guise of liberal or carefully thought-out attitudes. It is why a well-spoken, figure like Ralph Reed, the father of the religious right, was ultimately more worrisome than the small-town preacher who periodically brings his tribe to Bloomington, where I now live, to rant that “God hate fags.” Even in his own small, conservative Indiana town, this particular person is considered a fringe lunatic.
A comic relief sub-plot of the book comments on the act of writing itself, and what it means to be a writer in the age of corporate control and the primacy of the Internet. Silverman fears he may be a has-been and experiments mentally with various story lines that could lead to a rebirth. Over and over, his active imagination conjures up figures from literature and Jewish folktales, as well as his patriarchal Grandpa Zvi, with whom he holds conversations and dialogs, all of which will eventually lead to a “new book.” Mentally narrating his life as he goes, Silverman makes an observant outsider, simultaneously confronting his own demons, both of the writing and spiritual variety.
Even at one of the most crucial moments in the book, after a desperate escape attempt that results in near-death, Silverman resorts to the refuge of imagination, “Click! Went his writer’s memory, quickly capturing the moment of truth that was flying by. But when am I ever going to stick that in a novel? he wondered.”
And, more importantly, perhaps, how will “homo-terrorist” Silverman ever find his way home, Auntie Em? Perhaps, Roszak seems to be saying, we can all find our way there by recognizing an all-encompassing God who embraces the pluralistic products of His imagination with equal love.
Alyce Miller is a Bay Area transplant to the Midwest, where she has been a professor of English for eight years in the graduate creative writing program at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is the author of two books of fiction, and more than 100 stories, poems, and essays. Her work has won the Flannery O’Connor Award, Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence in Fiction, and the Lawrence Prize. She just completed a J.D. at the Indiana University School of Law.