The Reverend's Apprentice
by David N. Odhiambo
Reviewed by Spencer Dew
While one prophetic mode is surely that of outrage, roaring against the wrongness of the now, another mode gives voice to confusion, speaking a stuttering, even spasmodic, telegraphy of the moment's fractured condition. One prophet calls for walls to tumble; the other channels the myriad whispers behind those same walls. Two types of venting: one of anger, the other of an entire roiling culture's background noise.
The Reverend's Apprentice gives us the latter, offering a vision of a fragmented America through African eyes after the invasion of Iraq. The book follows its eponymous central figure, Jonah Ayot, from an imagined African country torn by too-familiar ethnic conflict to an imagined elite university in an America too-familiarly severed along lines of race and class. The land of slavery has become the land of struggling through sex work to pay rent; the land of the free offers free lunches to lines of the poor and homeless as million-dollar warplanes streak overhead on practice maneuvers. The Protestant ethic abrades against hypocritical justifications for selective moral standing and ignored social realities. Government abuses accrue daily, and the idea of individual redemption is perpetually deferred.
Jonah, whether logging into sex chatrooms as Ralph Ellison or challenged on the street to prove his Africanness by speaking "some click language," is an outsider's outsider, longing at his most vulnerable for a "home that no longer exists." He is also epileptic, his seizures interrupting the text with occasional series of stars, an apt metaphor for the jolting divisions in the nation he encounters, where people judge the world via the litmus tests of income bracket and skin tone.
Canadian author David N. Odhiambo presents the novel itself as the work of one of its other characters, Eliza May Morton, who some 200 pages into the text includes a synopsis presented to her agent, an abstract of the "embedded narrative" of her classmate Jonah's first year in the U.S. and the framing stories which stitch in and out of time and various perspectives. These layers are, says Eliza May, "an attempt to reflect the various degrees of distance between original documents and reconstructions based on the thousands of pages of notes." The novel has footnotes, too, legal disclaimers, and speculations on the eventual release of "Volume 2," some hints to the contents of which are revealed, pending litigation be damned. Latin references to Augustine are explained and winking allusions to Melville left standing; a professor gasses on about post-structuralism and Schrodinger's cat while Jonah attempts a manifesto for formal innovation in front of a sleeping class.
So on one hand, The Reverend's Apprentice is that recognizable sort of hybrid-genre novel, its technical sophistication within the lineage of David Foster Wallace, Laurence Sterne, and the Bible. Odhiambo has craftsmanly chops: a fine ear for the music of language, both in Nabokovian word-play and the jarring bluntness of street speech, plus economy and finesse when it comes to his own use of samples from the canon. But while moments from Eliza May's synopsis reduce the experience of the book to a punch line -- "Jonah gets stoned on some killer weed and has an experience that leads him to seriously ponder his moribund relationship with God" -- the distilled spirit of this book is less in nudges to the educated reader than in precisely that prophetic mode that opens to (and thus opens up) the babbling tongues of a specific time and place.
In the chronologic weave of the novel, Jonah first appears hospitalized in a mental institution, flickering back through the scenes that led there. Odhiambo's prose adeptly leaps in and out of circumstances, as well as in and out of his protagonist's skull. The writing rises to the challenge of the gimmickry of the book's formal setup with pyrotechnics as well as understated pathos. Of the scenes that will surely sear themselves into the reader, one is a lyrical hospital ward "pensee on cosmic inner linings," another a prolonged self-dissecting meta-prayer reflecting on the lack of sincere impulse to pray, and a third a crippling surgical juxtaposition of the absolute lack of words at the end of a lovers' quarrel, with overwrought prose called forth to shove away those same overwhelming, preverbal emotions.
Ultimately, Jonah is an apprentice at being human, struggling to love and find meaning in an exceedingly complex and frustrating world. Driven from a land ravaged by child soldiers and scarred by the hand of colonialism to a land defined by waves of state-sanctioned and criminal violence and racial oppression, from a land wracked by economic lack to a land limping under rampant inequalities, Jonah has come to a country known for producing prophets. Whether Odhiambo's foreign voice, whispering in the small press wilderness, will be received any more attentively is unknown; for those who do listen, however, here is an authentic and powerful writer channeling the anxieties, disjunctions, arrogances, and strivings of our time.
Spencer Drew is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.