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Book Review : A Prize-Winning Novel Leaves a Legacy of Doubts

July 18, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

The Warrior's Gift by Mack Faith (University of Iowa Press: $14.95)

"The Warrior's Gift" arrives alluringly wrapped in the Iowa Associated Writing Programs Award, but the packaging is more impressive than the present. Though Faith has tackled themes of vengeance, illicit sexual passion and racial hatred, setting these forces against the restorative powers of innocence, charity and love, the murky symbolism muffles the impact of the narrative.

The book opens realistically in the 1960s. A small carnival is on its way to Colorado from Kansas. The basic company consists of 16-year-old Louis, sensitive, precocious and surprisingly literate for a boy sporadically educated by mail order; Louis' mother Joy, a vivacious exotic dancer; Dacia, a blind, black fortuneteller, and Lenny, Joy's recently acquired lover and newly appointed carnival manager. The black magician, Washington, a World War II veteran, is a powerful absent presence, talked about at great length but invisible. By the end of the book, Washington will have reappeared to share "the warrior's gift" with the survivors of the ensuing misadventures.

We lose Joy almost at once, when she is shot by her father on a sentimental visit to the homestead she left to take up her unconventional life. Her father, to whom we have barely been introduced, kills himself as well. Our Louis escapes this debacle, predicted by Dacia in one of her trances. Though Louis is seized and jailed as a suspect in his mother's murder by a policeman who claims to be Lenny's brother, he's released when the suicide note is found. During his week in jail, Louis is visited by a 14-year-old girl named Kelly, who leaves town with him by hiding in the trunk of his car, a pre-war Packard in mint condition. Frequently and lovingly described, the Packard plays an obscure but pivotal role in the book. To know exactly what this role is, you would have to ask the man who owns one.

The two waifs, Louis and Kelly, wind up at an abandoned lodge in the Rocky Mountains, led there by letters written by another, earlier Louis, the 16-year-old's uncle, believed to be a casualty of World War II. Though written to Joy from the front lines, these letters came into her father's possession by a roundabout way and have now resurfaced in Louis' footlocker, never mind how. Louis and Kelly set up housekeeping in the derelict hotel, supporting themselves by various odd jobs. During this idyllic sojourn, they're watched over by the lodge's nominal owner Joseph, a wise and gentle mystic whom Kelly had discovered floating in the hotel's swimming pool.

An Extraordinary Person

While lying in the water for hours on end is not precisely the same as walking on water, other ponderous analogies suggest that Joseph is an extraordinary person, made from something finer and more rare than the common clay. Here the author abandons his already tenuous connection with actuality and allows the novel to veer off into dreams, fantasies and visions, some apparently caused by immersion in the magic spring-fed swimming pool, others arising from other sources. At this juncture, Louis speaks directly to the bewildered reader, saying, "I knew that was supposed to explain something to me, but it didn't. I figured that if I waited, though, I would catch on before long." He catches on, more or less, in the 100 epiphanous pages that follow, though others may not be so intuitive.

Subsidiary characters come and go at the author's whim, but Lenny lurks around for most of the book, more vicious than we ever suspected. Washington finally returns from a lengthy hegira in North Africa, where his guru has taught him that "every warrior serves a master. For some, like Lenny, it's death. For others, it's revenge or justice. For the spiritual warrior, his duty is to freedom, for himself and others. That is the gift." Louis, deeply disturbed by the horrors he has witnessed in the course of the story, listens and is consoled by this message.

At the very end of the novel, we learn of the complex bonds between Joy and the first Louis; Dacia and her brother Mark. Twenty years earlier, these four young people, high school classmates, had been on their way home from a Billie Holliday concert in Denver when they were brutally attacked by racist hoodlums; the dreadful event setting all the preceding catastrophes in motion. Disordered to the point of incoherence, the winner of the Iowa Novel contest leaves us brooding about the runners-up in that competition.

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