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The Devil and Daniel Silverman Paperback – January 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
This story of a gay Jewish novelist's trip from San Francisco to a small religious college in the Midwest is an uneven, fitfully entertaining satire. Roszak, a social historian (The Making of a Counter Culture) and novelist (Flicker), begins with some witty jabs at the publishing industry. Daniel Silverman is a writer whose last success was nearly 20 years ago, when Analyzing Anna ("solid middle-brow exercises in mordant but good-humored social satire") spent one week at number 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. Now his job teaching university extension courses isn't paying the bills, and his agent has long since dumped him. When Minnesota's Faith College invites him to speak on humanism, he can hardly refuse-they're offering $12,000. When he arrives, he finds that the faculty members believe, among other things, that homosexuals are unclean and humanists are going to hell. To make matters worse, he is trapped by a ferocious blizzard for several days. At this point, the book becomes bogged down in broad, predictable sendups of the American religious right. Silverman has heated arguments with his bigoted hosts, who talk about "the nearly monopolistic influence your people hold over the mass media" and insist that evidence for the Holocaust is "exaggerated." Roszak does some damage control by turning to farce, as a liquor-soaked Silverman begins to suspect that his hosts are planning to kill him before the end of the storm. But the novel's intermittent pleasures are weighed down by the clumsy social critique.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
What happens when worlds collide? Especially when a "secular humanist" is stranded in a group of Far Right Christian evangelicals? Roszak confronts these issues in his new novel. Daniel Silverman is a once successful--now failing--writer, gay, a secular Jew, and an overall ornery person. Living in San Francisco, he is booked as a speaker at a tiny Christian college in northern Minnesota, and he doesn't know why. He hasn't had work or speaking engagements in years. Once he arrives, to give a lecture on "Religious Humanism," he is immediately confronted with a cloistered community of like-minded Christians who doubt everything Silverman says, and he ends up defending his very way of life--much of which he privately despises. Trapped on campus in a blizzard, Silverman himself eventually becomes a Christ figure--persecuted, almost unto death, by righteous "believers" who can't stand his tolerance. Despite the smug viewpoints Roszak puts into Silverman's mouth and the unbearable characters he creates the evangelicals to be, he tells a good story about believing in yourself and your lifestyle. Michael Spinella
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Then there are the uber-bigots.
And there are the faculty and staff of author Theodore Roszak's fictional Faith College, a small "liberal arts" college located on the northern border of Minnesota (motto: "Excellence in All its Diverse Glory"), and supported in large part by the Free Reformed Evangelical Brethren in Christ Synod of North America.
Daniel Silverman, a "Jewish humanist" and novelist living with his partner in San Francisco, is invited to give the inaugural lecture of Faith College's new religious humanism program. This isn't Silverman's preference, who really is mystified why he, in particular, was invited (his novels, measured in both quality reviews and sales, have been going south for years). But the speaking fee and perks ($12,000 up front, with first class plane tickets), is a godsend for Silverman and his partner, Marty (yes, pun intended). He'll be missing New Year Eve celebrations with Marty, but the money is so good. "It's in and out," Silverman reasoned. Marty doesn't have high hopes. "But you will bring me back a souvenir, won't you honey? I'll bet there's a nifty gifty shoppe that sells these charming little mementos of Gypsum Hump."
Silverman never gets the opportunity to even THINK about selecting a souvenir, gypsum or otherwise.
Silverman is a bit more than a Jewish humanist and novelist. He's a gay man living in a long-term, monogamous relationship, in Sin City, with the traditional liberal attitudes toward abortion, gender relationships, the Holocaust, evolution, and education.
And, contrary to Silverman's initial plans, the students and faculty of Faith College get both barrels of Silverman's worldviews during his lecture. What does he care about their unease? For Silverman, "It's in and out." Except...
A mother of a storm traps Silverman at Faith College, and the remainder of the book is really about his pleas and attempts to escape, and the fixation of the faculty and students on his sexual orientation. It goes from being pitiful to dangerous, very fast. And when you read the real reason he was invited...
Roszak doesn't attempt to be "fair" to the various issues raised in The Devil and Daniel Silverman. This is Faith College through the lenses of that Jewish humanist.
"Of course most of the people he knew - those who weren't Jews - were probably some kind of nominal Christian. Or so he assumed. He never asked, and they never told, but Christianity was the country's default religion, wasn't it?" (p. 71).
"He had learned during his early years of travel that nine out of ten people he met on the road regarded his visit as an opportunity for them to talk, not him. They had hired a listener, not a speaker. So he did have the choice of laying back and letting his hosts hold forth. Any little question would do to elicit a disquisition on their project" (p; 94).
[Regarding the lesson from Sodom and Gomorrah] "Silverman felt his anger rising, but quickly backed off. What was there to argue about here, after all? Some lurid piece of mythology that probably never happened? Women turning to salt, cities destroyed by fire and brimstone. Arguing about such things was like arguing about Jack and the Beanstalk" (p. 181).
"He was touring the inside of an alien intelligence" (p. 188).
The ending surprised me. Roszak's ability to connect all the dots in this story was really a plus. I enjoyed the "philosophical discussions" throughout, and the growth of Silverman's apprehension, as well as the hidden support he received from some sources.
I'm going to pass on my copy of The Devil and Daniel Silverman to a religious studies faculty member, who I predict will find it more interesting than any faculty member of, say, Faith University.
The subtitle/blurb is "A Wickedly Funny Novel about an Outraged Liberal Trapped in a Fundamentalist Bible College." So in this "high concept" (which is mogolspeak for "obvious cliché") era in which the trailer is the movie, I'm expecting a lot of fish-out-of-water scenes. This novel is a lot better than that. Daniel Silverman (who is gay as well as Jewish and liberal) is a more subtle character, more individualized, who finds himself forced to confront some transcendent issues, even if he'd rather not. Without spoiling the story, I can say I was impressed by how he changes within the main action (though to become more of himself, so to speak) which is itself not as predictable as the title and blurb led me to believe.
This is the kind of contemporary novel that should be part of our popular fiction today. It deals conscientiously with important social issues but it's full of humanity and it's very entertaining, with elements of suspense, humor, and refreshly honest intellectual debate.
Sure, there's enough irony and puckish literary allusion for David Lodge fans, maybe even for devotees of Delmore Schwartz. But even the fundamentalist characters have dimension, life and a weird sort of sympathy. The all-too typical bicoastal portrait of the frozen and hearty Midwest, and all those tall, toothy folks who actually say, "you betcha," yields after the first pages to a more nuanced though no less paranoid portrayal. It's just that the paranoia gets more and more justified, even as the characters get more and more human. The exegesis of fundamentalist beliefs is thorough and thoroughly frightening, but Silverman's suppression of hysteria for an anthropological analytical calm is both effective in engaging these doctrines, and funny in a spooky, edgy way, so as readers we may find ourselves freaked by our own suppressed hysteria.
A couple of Roszak's previous novels have been opted for film and you can see why---even in this era when it's extremely hard to get a good script made, especially if it's about contemporary American reality not involving serial killers, his writing is cinema-sympathetic. And in this novel there's a terrific central scene that plays awfully well in the cinema of the mind.
Anyway, there should be more novels like this one, and this one should be read. Now I am going to read previous Roszak novels? You betcha.
The big problem is the characters-the problem being that there aren't any. All that fills these pages are unpersuasive caricatures. There is not a scintilla of genuineness hovering about anyone in this book.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the college is question is drawn not so much as a college as a cult lacking any sort of believability.
This is doubly disappointing as Roszak has a fairly engaging wiring voice and a nice ear for dialog. Unfortunately, given that none of his "characters" really has anything remotely interesting to say, the latter skill is pretty much wasted here.
I really liked the premise of this book and the come-on description on the back of the book caught my fancy-I wanted to really like this effort. In the end, it was all I could do to finish it. I didn't even bother to ditch it by giving it to the local library-I simply threw it into the recycling bin for the garbage men to pick up.
Give this one a pass.