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Saturday, January 8th, 2011
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Lamb Bright Saviors (Flyover Fiction)

by Robert Vivian

Broken in the Heartland

A review by Kelly Lenox

The narrators of Lamb Bright Saviors are, for the most part, a curious collection of folks who have come together in a small room in a small house around a dying man -- a preacher who has collapsed on an empty stretch of Nebraska road. Each narrator's voice is distinct and has a unique reaction to the strange gathering. There are four men ("Not one of us had a direction you'd call promising, like we were all going down the drain at the same time in our own special way") who have carried the preacher from where he fell to the nearest house, a mile away; Marian, the elderly blind woman to whose home they've come and with whom they have a shameful history; the preacher himself; and Mady, his assistant.

Robert Vivian writes with an eye for detail and an ear for music, composing stories from sentences as shapely as Baroque scrollwork and fun as a carnival ride. The narrator who begins (and ends) Lamb Bright Saviors -- the voice's aura of omniscience is heightened by italic typeface -- introduces the preacher and the girl who tows a wagon full of Bibles behind him:

The preacher wore an old-time getup straight out of a traveling circus, replete with frilly mustard-colored vest, silver watch chain, and cream-colored tie, his straw hat slightly askew on his head, with dark moons of sweat under his arms. Flies gathered there to wash the TV screens of their eyes. The preacher was six-foot-seven with a wreath of white hair around his bald pate to match his albino face as the searing Nebraska heat flame-broiled Jesus inside his mouth. His coat and pants were yellow all the way down to his lemon wingtip shoes as he went banana sailing into the sun....Ditch weed and corn rows watched them go by in a gauntlet of vegetable eyes. He didn't look back at the girl to see how she was doing. His neglect was monstrous and profound, like ignoring her was central to his call.

Vivian's descriptions delve deep into the resonances among things. Heat waves on a road don't just make a mirage, but "from far away the heat made their footsteps tremble on the dusty road like candle flames." Mady (the girl) describes a woman in a diner with "jangling bracelets on her arm that sound like hubcaps falling down a stairwell." In Vivian's writing -- he's also published poetry and essays and has had several plays produced -- every word works on the levels of story, sound, and image: the jangle of those bracelets conjures a woman who knows all too well the sound hubcaps might make falling down a stairwell.

One of this novel's concerns is how a person's inner landscape meshes -- or more often, doesn't -- with the world outside; in this crowd, every narrator is unreliable. Mady worries that the joy inside her, if let loose, would "knock people down with sudden bolts of gladness," even as the opening narrator worries how she must be suffering on the road. The men accede to their evil and good natures both, unsure where to lodge the impulse to change that is engendered by the preacher in his death throes. All of them dwell on the fringes -- of society, of health, of the law, of sanity -- and yet they are the salt of the earth, they are our neighbors. Their perspectives are often surprising: they don't feel the way one expects the character to feel, but, then, none of them is much accustomed to behaving as other people think he or she ought to behave. Vivian poignantly traces how it is that humans can be so confounding, to ourselves and to others, as when Oly, one of the four men, decides that he's "done trying to make sense out of human behavior, my own or what makes another person tick. I think if you could catch just one good look into somebody's heart you'd weep for what you saw there, the sorrow and the beauty and the thorns growing up around the heartbreak."

Heartbreak and its solace provide much occasion for this novel's rich use of the tropes of evangelical Christianity -- the sacrificial blood of the lamb, the light of the world, the necessity of being born again -- yet they are employed with such magic and by such characters as would be welcome in only the most open-hearted of churches, and they use such means as would be condemned by most evangelicals. The preacher, for example, obtained young Mady by setting her house on fire and kidnapping her as a "snot-nosed toddler" (her words). And Yarborough (one of the four men) recalls an encounter with a man who participated in gang-raping him while both were in prison; after beating the man brutally, Yarborough had held him in an embrace, whispering of beauty and goodness, hoping the man could still hear, hoping they both might be forgiven.

Vivian keeps circling back to forgiveness and redemption, love and hate, and how it is that we turn those corners in our lives after which nothing is ever the same. The line between savior and saved blurs: in his last hours the preacher asks a question that will haunt each of the others, "Lamb bright saviors, what has become of you?" Marian is also otherworldly; though she is the long-ago victim of these four men in these same rooms, she sits in her chair, gathering the power of the landscape into her frame. In Oly's words, she glows "like a cloud off yonder on the verge of becoming rain....[T]he blind lady couldn't see us but was still watching us with every pore of her old lady's skin." They have brought her a man on the verge of death, who doesn't want saving; he's already as saved as he can be. The novel unfolds in their watching and waiting, as the synergy of their collective witness to the death of this strange holy man works its peculiar miracle in each one of them.

Lamb Bright Saviors is part of the University of Nebraska Press's Flyover Fiction series. It's the second in a trilogy that opened with The Mover of Bones, a book delightfully and powerfully unlike any I'd read in a long, long time. Briefly, The Mover of Bones begins with Jesse Breedlove digging up the bones of a girl he knows to have been murdered. He gathers her bones and her golden hair, mythically long, bundles it all up, and begins an odyssey across the Midwest. Again, the chapters are narrated by different people, in this case the ones -- each their own variety of desperate -- who encounter Jesse and the girl (as she often appears). Breedlove becomes an itinerant bringer of hope and forgiveness to them, shifting the balance of their lives. These two books are more like soul mates than traditional trilogy partners: their linkage is one of geography and metaphysics more than plot or character. They can be read -- savored is really the better term -- independently. And I'm jostling to be first in line for the third, Another Burning Kingdom, due out in March.

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