Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Review: Danny Gospel

Danny Gospel is a confused, well-meaning young man narrating his own confused, disjointed, but well-meaning tale in David Athey's debut novel of the same name.

Danny wants a normal, happy life, but "normal" is relative, and happiness is elusive. He's lost pretty much everyone he has loved, and he's losing himself. He wakes up one morning to see a mysterious, lovely woman in his bedroom, who kisses him and then disappears. Danny immediately embarks on a quest to find this angel, convinced she's real and that she holds the key to his dream of a normal, happy life.

This book has ADHD: it can't sit still and it can't stay focused. Danny's tangled narrative takes us through his memories: traveling across Iowa singing old tyme gospel hymns and spirituals; rescuing his sister from an online predator; and assorted family tragedies. The story covers Danny Gospel's present-tense adventures as well, searching for an old family friend across frozen cornfields and bumpy back roads; running from the law and hanging out with a band of strange, musical, unemployed partyers (sp?); and attending the bizarre wedding of his estranged brother.

This book has Asperger's Syndrome, too: It doesn't handle transitions very well, it is characterized by repetitive behaviors and odd obsessions, and the characters have difficulty with non-verbal skills. Emotions don't track very well with these characters; you don't really know why they're feeling what they're feeling.

Danny Gospel lost me in narrative transitions several times in each chapter. The narrative lurched backward and forward in time so often and in such unpredictable and disjointed ways that my brain felt like it was bouncing over winter-pot-holey Chicago streets in a truck in desperate need of new shocks.

I found the novel to be repetitive and odd, kind of like what Rain Man would look like if he were a book. Danny repeatedly prays for a normal, happy life, but instead he keeps encountering herds of runaway pigs, "perfectly lovely" but mysterious women in white, and confusing conflicts, car troubles, and hints of mail fraud. Gospel music winds through the story discordantly, like orange yarn in a white silk shawl.

(Danny is a spiritual guy who devours the writings of the desert fathers. But you'd never catch a desert father whining about not having a normal, happy life.)

The characters have difficulty with non-verbal skills--meaning, they're not fully fleshed out and well-developed enough to have non-verbal depth. They have dialogue, and some even have a little back-story--but most, including the eponymous Danny, are flat and somewhat surreal. Even when the author tries to flesh them out, you don't feel their pain or understand why they do what they do or say what they say, and sometimes, why they're even in the story.

The Atom Smasher, for example, shows up in the first chapter. We learn what he looks like, where he lives (Chicago), what he does for a living, what kind of car he drives; he and Danny have a surreal conversation about atoms and fireflies. This character disappears for most of the rest of the book, and then inexplicably reappears in Iowa eight chapters later, with no explanation for how or why he's there.

Even Rachel, Danny's fiance, has no depth. We know that he misses her and believes against all evidence in their soul-mate connection--but we don't really know what connects them, or what Rachel is like. Is she silly? Is she smart? Does she sing? Why did she come to Iowa from New York?

In the end of the story, we learn something completely unexpected that Danny did--but it seems to have almost no emotional connection to the rest of the story. It reads like it's supposed to be a big reveal of one of the suspenseful themes in the book--but it evokes a "Hmm. OK" rather than an "Ahhh!" or a "Wow!"

The bottom line with Danny Gospel is that there are too many characters, too many events, and not enough cohesion to make the novel work. There might be a really great story underneath the layers of unnecessary detail and extraneous characters. But all I got out of it was a couple of extra forehead wrinkles.


Kathie said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. Nicely done review. I concur with all your points and hope I managed to equate them in my "Library Thing" review of this Early Reviewer Book I received.

E. Peevie said...

Thanks, Kathie. I checked out your review on LT--you have a great perspective as an aspiring novelist. I don't know what workshopping is, but if it's at all onomatopoetic then it's something like getting together with a group of writers to critique works in progress--and I think you're right, that would probably help get the book to a more cohesive, intelligible and enjoyable place.

jeanie said...

So Ms. Peevie, why did you read this book in the first place? Just wondering.
The past President of EPeevie fan club

E. Peevie said...

Jeanie, Good question. I should have said upfront in my review: I received the book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. You can sign up for the chance to receive books that publishers have sent to LT. If you receive a book, you have a better chance of receiving another book in the future if you post a review of the book you received.