How does redemption find us? Does salvation appear in stained-glass and marble? Does it blow in on a breath of incense? Do we earn redemption through good works or martyrdom, or does redemption collapse before us on a dusty road wearing “an old-time getup straight out of a traveling circus”? In Lamb Bright Saviors, Robert Vivian sacrifices the sanity of an itinerant preacher, the sight of a widow, the criminal pasts of the group of young men caught by circumstance around the preacher’s deathbed, and the childhood of a young girl for the salvation of all.
Lamb Bright Saviors assembles a strange cast of seemingly ill-assorted people into a cohesive whole, a collage of found objects that transcend their original purposes. Vivian’s roaming minister, Mr. Gene, collapses in the road one day while walking from one small town to the next with Mady, his young assistant whom Gene may or may not have kidnapped from a burning house as a small child. Mr. Gene’s collapse catalyzes a chain of meetings and introspections. Carried into the house of a blind widow by four “rough characters” whose connection lies in a misspent youth, the minister lies on a deathbed that brings Mady, Munoz, Yarborough, Gus, and Oly together with Marian, the blind woman whose home the four men once robbed and vandalized in a brutal home invasion.
The narrative structure of Lamb Bright Saviors echoes a religious service. Divided into sections by three “songs” whose third-person narration and visionary imagery hint at scripture, the book unfolds through first-person musings reminiscent of readings or testimonies. Each character speaks in turn, the tone increasingly revelatory and in many cases confessional.
Vivian’s prose is rich with distinctive imagery; words that should not work together juxtapose to form vivid pictures. “Flies gathered there to wash the TV screens of their eyes. The preacher was six-foot-seven with a wreath of white hair around his bald pate to match his albino face as the searing Nebraska heat flame-broiled Jesus inside his mouth.” The flashing, detailed pictures rise and fall in a cadence that throws one into a revival meeting.
If Gene’s deathbed is the catalyst, Mady provides the touchstone for the novel. Her voice, by turns wry, elated, and innocent, opens and closes the book. Hers is the first detailed description in “Noon Song”. “The girl had black renegade hair all the way down her back and was around thirteen years old, though she didn’t know her date of birth or town of origin. Her white summer dress was torn at the hem and she wore pink flip-flops that made the sound of cards in the spokes of a bicycle tire dealing out one bad card after another.”
Hers is the first voice we hear: “When you come to a small town for the first time, far away from any other place, you have to be careful to keep the joy in till you find somewhere safe where you can let it out in secret, like maybe in a diner with an old man sitting alone and staring out the window.” Hers is the last voice we hear, ushering us down the aisle after “Evensong,” as she sings out her blend of grief, hope, and freedom.
Oly, Yarborough, Munoz, and Gus each grapple with a past more violent and hopeless than any of them had intended. Their chapters illustrate how far we fall when misjudging others and ourselves. For them, redemption comes with the clear vision that is found by the bed of a madman in the house of a blind woman.
Marian, the woman whose home has been invaded in two very different ways by the same men, has her own burdens of loss. Though bereft of physical sight, husband and son, Marian sees the inner truth more clearly than anyone else in the book; as she recalls following a strand of yarn from post to post into town, we see that some internal string guides her through the clutter of life that trips up others.
Lamb Bright Saviors delivers a powerful story within its mere 185 pages. Calling upon the vast prairies of the physical landscape and the crowded alleys of the human mind, Robert Vivian guides us through the possibilities of failure and redemption in a profound yet immensely readable novel.