Scott Driscoll Reviews A Very Minor Prophet
The following is a guest review of James Bernard Frost‘s A Very Minor Prophet (April, 2012, Hawthorne Books, 8.5×11, 200 pages, $18.95) by Scott Driscoll, teacher at the UW Extension Creative Writing Program.
James Bernard Frost’s new novel, A Very Minor Prophet pulls the curtain on an underground Portland peepshow that won’t disappoint. For all its graphic splatter of Voodoo donuts, Stumptown coffee, ecstatic bike rides, and rambling sermons delivered by a midget preacher to a modest congregation of anarchists, prostitutes, lesbians, and zinesters, Frost’s novel, aside from its likely appeal to twenty-somethings swilling their own PBR-fueled search for identity, is really, at its heart, a touching love story. As well, to his credit, Frost offers a pretty authentic portrait of Portland, Oregon’s underbelly, not to mention life in the damp chilly Northwest.
“My friends, America is not cute anymore, it’s run through its adolescence, and it’s looking more and more like Mommy raised a psychopath,” claims Booker, the midget preacher in a “sermon.” This observation, in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, generally sums up the lament of the liberal youth culture that populates this novel. More specifically, it sums up our hero’s journey.
It starts off cute enough. “At age twenty-two,” opines Bartholomew Flynn, “I lacked the ink that marked my generation of misfits, but I wasn’t lucky enough to find a corporate office admin job.” With a “coffee degree” in English from a Midwestern university, Flynn realizes his destiny—he works at Mecca Café. But what’s lacking in his slice of American Pie is made up for in creativity and sheer brio. After listening to Booker sermonize, Flynn starts writing “His Church that Sunday,” a “zine” replete with graphics that earns him the right to call himself the preacher’s scribe.
Enter Mercyx. Nothing happens without the pedaling force of the bicycle messenger/Photocopy Queen. To appreciate Mercyx, you have to appreciate her power to transform. “Mercyx was wearing a strapless dress, a kitschy cotton number with Ferris wheels on it in pink and yellow pastels…The contrast between the hard tattoos and the soft colors of her dress was a visual fiasco, making her appear comic and freaky and completely stunning all at once. Seed for romance thus planted, with help from a mooching professional illustrator, the zine gets traction, most significantly at Ben Dover Books (pun intended), where eventually it will bring real world riches to someone but not to our hapless hero, who signs away his rights for five hundred dollars, chump change he eventually, in despair, spends on a hooker he can ill afford for a variety of reasons.
En route to betrayal, Flynn survives encounters with a band of anarchists led by charismatic bad boy Diogenes. While held down and forced to ingest cheap beer through a tube, Flynn notes he is looking at, “two chef paramedics, a pirate, an ape man, Tiny the Clown, and two bearded Mad-Max looking guys…” you get the picture, “a bunch of future-thinking guys” who are “learning skills that the rest of the world thought was laughable, learning how to weld, learning how to endure pain, learning how to live as a clan,” a bunch who go into action as “gas-masked, tall-bike riding anarchists who shouted insults and hurled beer cans at…” the windshields of “the stupid manatees, the bulbous lard-addled American masses…” soon to become victims of the “apocalypse” they “deserved.”
It’s Mercyx who finally pushes Flynn to a point of no return. One guess as to who he finds in bed with the midget preacher. Howling in psychic pain, Flynn hurls his beloved bike from the Broadway bridge, strips, don’s a whore’s wig, wags his naked wiener at traffic, is pummeled by an ice-cold Vanilla Coke, and arrives at this insight: “In order to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, or whatever you want to call it—your higher calling, your fullest potential—you have to make an ass of yourself.”
This novel is Less Than Zero meets coffee degree Zinester anarchists in soggy Portland with a midget messiah thrown in for theological spicing. Add bold graphics. Add speech bubbles. Add asides to discourse on coffee and Catholicism. Okay, and with all that it’s actually by turns funny and sad. The novel’s main shortcoming is its tendency to resort to shock—in our first real love moment, our two bicyclists puke side-by-side—where delicacy and finesse might have left a taste more savory to the discerning palate. Maybe tastelessness is the point?
Don’t ask how Booker has his John the Baptist head end up on a platter, you’re told in the prologue and it’s heavy-handed and hardly factors in the story except to clear the way for someone else’s happy ending. Don’t worry about that. And don’t worry about the morning-after taste. Just climb on and go for a wild ride.
Scott Driscoll, winner of an Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006, has an MFA from the University of Washington and makes his living as a writer and teacher. His short stories and narrative essays have been published extensively in literary journals and anthologies.
DISCLOSER: Scott Driscoll has no relationship with Hawthorne Books or the author.