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Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Places? : A fable full of advice : THE HOLY MAN, By Susan Trott (Riverhead Books: $18; 192 pp.)

March 26, 1995|James Wilcox | James Wilcox's novels include "Modern Baptists."

In "The Holy Man," novelist Susan Trott offers us a sincere, earnest fable chock-full of advice for "good people wanting to be better people." Joe, the holy man, is a 72-year-old World War II veteran who spent 10 years in Cambodia soaking up wisdom from an Eastern sage. The mountaintop hermitage Joe lives in comes complete with male and female monks--at least, during the warmer months--and a line often a mile long of robust pilgrims waiting to see him. And "like most people everywhere," we are informed, the pilgrims are on the whole "nice."

Yet the first lesson many of these pilgrims learn is that they may not be so nice after all. One pilgrim after another is "full of his own importance, his own mission" and treats Joe, who opens the door without revealing his identity, as "the lowliest servant."

By administering an economical Zen-like shock to these visitors, Joe is able to process the bulk of them through the hermitage at an average rate of one minute and seven seconds per person.

Clever as Joe's high turnover method may be, there would be no book if he didn't occasionally sit down and discuss an issue with some of the less pleasant truth-seekers. Here a very unZen-like pattern sets in. The problem--anger, drink, fear or grief--is heralded by a chapter title and in many cases solved a few pages later. If the solution carries an element of surprise for the reader, then Joe might seem, if not exactly holy, at least somewhat imaginative. But for those readers who can figure out in advance how someone like the drunkard will be cured, Joe should offer the consolation of a few observations that are not only warm and sincere, but genuinely fresh.

Does he? Yes, if you can read a line such as "Life passes quickly and, toward the end, gathers speed like a freight train running downhill" and not hear the brakes squealing in protest. Or if these tips for self-improvement don't give you pause: "'When you are reading a magazine or newspaper, consider reading a novel or poetry. When reading a novel, consider reading a book on astronomy or bird behavior.' "

Is Joe suggesting that Konrad Lorenz is more worthwhile than Tolstoy? Or is he promoting distraction, not attending to the matter at hand? Obviously, Joe doesn't intend either implication despite his curious use of "when." To be fair, Joe himself doesn't put much trust in words and feels uneasy if he talks too much.

Talk might be less of a problem for Joe if he didn't happen to find himself in the middle of a fable. This is an extremely challenging genre for any contemporary writer to attempt, particularly when the action is not removed in time either to a remote past or future, or when the characters themselves are not more fantastic, such as Orwell's talking animals. Since fables or allegories have an antique feel for today's readers, we probably should not be surprised when a veteran of World War II says, "Goodbye, then, and good journey." Nor should it bother us when "a small girl child" shows up with her family at the hermitage, and Joe knows not "why, or how, or from whence."

But when this stilted diction is combined with more mundane concerns, the result is not always happy. "I always know exactly where she is and who she's with," the jealous man says about his wife, "for we have a car phone and she is required by me to carry a phone on her person." While on one page we might encounter an echo of the New Testament--"Then he plucked a yellow apple from his pack and thanked nature and the hands of men and women"--on another we run up against someone getting in "hot water with seven monks."

Abrupt shifts in tone like these have been used to good effect by authors as diverse as Frederick Buechner and P. G. Wodehouse. The reader, though, must have confidence that the author is in complete control, aware of every nuance. Perhaps Joe's skepticism about the value of language ("He didn't believe in talking much. . . .") is a faithful reflection of his particular brand of spirituality, where old and new jive in mutual tolerance and kindness. Westernized Buddhism mingles freely with a Christianity made soluble by the eudaemonism of a Dale Carnegie. In other words, anything goes.

Or rather, almost anything. Joe does explicitly forbid one kind of thinking. "We want to free our minds to come into harmony with the universe," Joe tells the fearful woman, "so as to be able to see into the true nature of things. . . . Which embracing dogma presents.' "

There are some who might disagree with Joe--Mother Teresa, for one. She might feel that Joe, in his rejection of every dogma, is quite dogmatic himself.

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