One morning in October 2001, a beautiful woman in white comes in to 25-year-old Danny Gospel’s trailer in Iowa City, kisses him lightly on the lips, and leaves. At least Danny believes this happened. He believes to the extent that he forsakes his job as a mail carrier. Instead he sets out on a quest to find her and the happiness that he expected would be his fifteen years earlier when he was ten and his Iowa farm family achieved local fame as the Gospel Family Singers. In Danny Gospel, a debut novel by David Athey, we follow Danny as he searches for happiness, love and a little bit of ground he can call his own.
Okay. So we’ve determined the plot is a quest. But this is a quest unlike any other you’ve been on. It’s as capricious as a dream. Danny goes for long trips in his truck looking for a lost neighbor, makes impossible escapes from local authorities, drives for days and nights to Florida, and there gets pulled overboard by an impossibly big king (fish of some kind) yet lives to tell the tale. It reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting – bizarre pieces of plot flung all over the place with very little sanity holding it together. Because, you see, Danny is insane – at least that’s the rumor.
The book is written in first person with Danny the distractible story teller. Any little thing – a word, a slant of light, a smell – will trigger memories. All those vignettes (beautifully told; Athey’s writing is often poetic and the back-story bits were my favorite) help us fill in the details of the well-meaning but flawed and tragedy-prone Gospel family. Maybe it’s no wonder Danny is the way he is.
Danny is not the only colorful character. There is also Grease, his loyal friend and rescuer, Holly, his dead sister who was obsessed with Christmas, Jon, his older brother whom he loves and hates for the part he played in letting the farm and the Gospel possessions be wrenched from the family, a high-rider pink Cadillac, and the rowdy bunch in Florida.
Kindness, acceptance, loyalty and finding love are themes woven through the story, I think. There is also a vein of spirituality buried just below the surface – with snippets of the old gospel songs the family used to sing constantly bubbling into Danny’s consciousness. He still clings to the hope that one day he’ll write a spiritual that is worthy of the genre. But the message is mixed. What does one do, for example, with Grease’s penchant for the raunchy, all those bloody fights and a kid who sells marijuana to save the family ministry?
Before I read the book, I read the cover. The description used words like “funny, poignant, revelatory, elegiac, luminous.” Phyllis Tickle’s endorsement said: "Danny Gospel is as compelling and engrossing a read as I have had lately….[It] will humble your heart and invite your soul to re-consider some of its assumptions.” This will be great, I thought.
But barely into the book I knew that if I weren’t reading to review, I would never have finished it. I went online to see what others were saying. There weren’t many reviews but the ones I found were equally positive. That’s when the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” came to mind. Could it be that no one had the nerve to say – this is nuts?
Or at any rate, and running the risk of sounding like a rube who must have even obvious jokes explained, I don’t get how it is all those wonderful things. Maybe I need a refresher course in symbology. All I can advise is read it and judge for yourself. Is it elegiac, luminous and assumption-changing or a completely improbable, albeit rollicking and sometimes entertaining-though-irrelevant dreamscape? Danny Gospel is scheduled to be released in April of 2008.