on October 15, 2003
This is an atheist novel, not merely a secular novel. Many novels, including whodunnits, science fiction and romance novel are secular, in that religion is not mentioned or does not play any role. But that merely means, the author does not bring up the topic of religion, as we mostly don't in everyday life. This book is about the main character having no religion and god being an illogical construct. We can know this for one thing, because the back cover says so, and for another the literature that came with the book says the novel "raises compelling questions about religion that open-minded readers, no matter what their beliefs, will find stimulating," So how do you write a novel of unbelief, a subject that is essentially philosophical and cerebral, and not exactly the stuff of derring do and excitement?
Start with a Bildungsroman, a novel of growing up and coming of age. In this a world ethnicity and religion are closely entwined, in other words New York City. Give the hero an Italian Catholic father married to a Russian Jewish mother, and conflict is built in. Being neither fish nor fowl, the protagonist grows up without adhering to either or any religion. Many individuals growing up in a secular family are able to carry their unbelief lightly and simply ignore the mumbo-jumbo of the believers. Not so this character. In addition to two ethnic religions, the family is dysfunctional in many other ways, financial, emotional, educational and as parents. Add to this the hero's fiery antagonistic temper, and you are ready for some explosive events. The main character tends to lead with his chin when confronted with religion, and consequently often creates his own troubles. In fact, the most unbelievable aspect of the novel is how a character so intelligent, can be so stupid in some of his everyday choices.
Let me make it clear this is not some philosophical treatise on faith and religion. On the contrary, we follow the main character through a long and eventful life filled with many adventures, through love, marriage, and family. Only from time to time does he stub his toe on the god question in such a way he is made to feel an outsider. The novel may be regarded as a "seeker" novel, in that the protagonist spends much of his life searching for a niche in life where he fits, where he is happy, and where he can unfold his talents and live up to his potential.
His school years are marked by being the odd kid, the one without religion, the one that doesn't fit in. After high school he follows a number of low paying, dead end jobs, and takes on a marriage long before he is mature enough or financially able. Only slowly, over the years does he find mentors who accept and believe in him. Gradually he wrestles himself into an education and an acceptable life. Constantly he explores additional interests or money making schemes, some of which get him into trouble. And, throughout his life, various members of his birth family pursue him for help, for succor, and to add yet another burden.
At this point you may think, OK a made up life about an unbeliever. Here is the kicker. The novel is largely autobiographical. How can I tell? It reads like an actual life, it gives too many details, names, places, times which are characteristic of biography, but which novelists generally obscure. Enough so, that I asked the author, who confirmed: "Almost everything in the novel is autobiographical." and "Feel free to say that you have the author's word that it is mostly so."
If you want to understand how an atheist gets that way, why did he lose the faith in the supernatural everybody else finds so easy to hold and keep. Here is the well written, attractive story of one unbeliever. It is a good read.