Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Review - The Samaritan: A Novel by Fred Venturini
Short review: If you are a loser, even an inexplicable supernatural power won't change that.
Just because you can
Regenerate your organs
You can't save your love
Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Blank Slate Press is a small press publisher dedicated to promoting authors from the greater Saint Louis area (their official website). The Samaritan by Fred Venturini is their first publication. Set in rural southern Illinois with a protagonist almost entirely paralyzed by his own self-doubt and insecurities, The Samaritan is bleak, dark, and depressing, but at the same time compelling.
The story follows the life of Dale, a small town loser with limited social skills and no ability to deal with women who seems to mostly drift along aimlessly punctuating his journey with brief and unsuccessful bursts of initiative. Dale's unlikely best friend is Mack Tucker, who is in many ways his polar opposite - a gifted athlete who is loud, brash, aggressive, and almost inexplicably popular with women. But Mack is only a gifted athlete in the small town arena that he and Dale grow up in, and Dale grows to realize that in the wider world Mack will be just another small town hero who can't take the next step.
But while Dale realizes this, and becomes more and more paralyzed into inaction by his recognition of his own inadequacies, Mack does not, and as events play out, never has to confront this reality head on. Life seems to conspire against Dale, every time he decides to take a risk and break out of his shell, his attempt is foiled and things get worse - climaxing in a horrific scene that ends his first, and pretty much only, attempt to romance a girl, the pretty and mostly inaccessible Regina. Like many small town kids, Dale and Mack had big dreams, but the harsh reality of the world kills them by graduation, which turns out entirely differently from the way Dale had envisioned. And on the way, Dale discovers that he has a unique and completely unexpected ability that seems like a miracle, but in the context of his life his gift only drives him into despair.
The story moves from a tiny rural town in Illinois to a slightly larger small town in rural Illinois as Dale sinks further into listless despondency. Unmoored from reality, Dale drifts through his life until a chance encounter with Reanna, the twin sister of his lost love jolts him out of his inactivity. It turns out that she has married badly to a dealer in meth, the scourge of rural U.S.A., and Dale quickly realizes that her husband abuses her to boot. Dale attempts to intervene, and as usual, his attempt just makes matters worse.
And then Dale's strange ability becomes the key to his plans to set things right. You see, Dale inexplicably has the capability to heal any injury no matter how dire, up to and including regenerating lost body parts. Dale's plan, like everything else he does, is executed in a clumsy and halting manner, with missteps and false starts. Eventually he links up with Mack again, who, as always, is the catalyst to action that Dale requires to push him forward.
In a world of reality shows and instant celebrity, it seems inevitable that Dale would end up as the centerpiece of such a circus, and thus The Samaritan, a reality show about a man who gives away his organs. Mack, of course, sees this as his ticket to fame and stardom in a way that Dale, myopically focused on his puppy dog infatuation with a self-destructive woman, cannot. Dale trades in his internal pain for the real pain of repeated surgeries in a vain quest for the love of a woman who is dead hoping to obtain it vicariously through her sister who considers him to be an annoyance at best. Though blessed with a gift that in a comic book would make him a superhero, Dale's reality is that of grinding pain, and a life that is, in his mind, only marginally better than a life without his gift.
Eventually, after dozens of agonizing surgeries, Dale finds the hopelessness in his attempt to rescue Reanna when he is finally given a letter she wrote to him pleading for a donation to save her abusive husband. Just like Dale doesn't really want to be saved from being a loser by Mack, Reanna doesn't want to be saved from a husband who beats her. In short, no matter what supernatural power you might have, you cannot save someone who does not want to be saved. After pointing out that he is not truly a Samaritan, no matter what his Hollywood billing might say, because he sacrifices almost nothing with his donations, Dale decides to donate the one organ he believes he cannot regenerate - his heart - and donate it to Reanna's vile bastard of a spouse in a vainglorious suicidal gesture.
Of course, this being Dale, even his suicide is a failure, and doesn't even have the intended affect on Reanna. It seems that when you are a small town loser with shrinking dreams and no real idea of how to change your life, you are destined to remain a small town loser no matter how amazing your powers are, or how much you are willing to sacrifice. And maybe what you think you want isn't really worth getting. Dale, who has the most amazing gift, and who sacrifices everything, never gets what he thinks he wants. But in the end he ends up more or less satisfied. Reanna, on the other hand, does, and one suspects that her life is not destined to work out well.
Other than the fact that the book seems to imply that trying to help an abused spouse is a lost cause from the beginning, The Samaritan is an excellent book. It takes a brutally honest look at the bleak landscape of the overly romanticized small towns of rural America and exposes the petty nastiness and violence that lurks there. But at the same time, it shows just how noble even the most misguided fool can be, even if that nobility is seemingly ill-directed. As the debut novel for both Fred Venturini and Blank Slate Press, this is a compelling, albeit harshly bleak, read.
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