The Buddha once delivered a sermon by holding a single flower aloft. Kashyapa saw the flower and smiled. He understood as the others only puzzled and because of this became the first Zen Patriarch.
As with much of BlogCritic author John Spivey’s hypnotic, multi-dimensional tale of personal redemption, this riddle offers us a way to also cease being one of the Living Dead. The Great Western Divide is a story of immense beauty and power, ebbing and flowing like a river, bending and heading back when meeting a barrier, rushing frantically through rapids or over cliffs to form a waterfall, or barely discernable through dry river beds.
There are multiple narratives woven through this tale interspersed with Native American, Zen, Confucian, Tao, and other religious or philosophical thoughts. Spivey proclaims none of them as Truth but rather offers them as lessons and guides to live life fully and completely. It is fascinating to watch — and perhaps engage in — the weaving of this tapestry without at first having a clear sense of the end product.
Spivey is a gifted writer. He is a master storyteller, creating characters and drama simply and effectively, reaching a critical point and then moving on only to return at the appropriate time later to continue the story. The same is true with his multiple narratives and themes which are taken to a critical point, only to be temporarily abandoned while he works on another pattern in the tapestry. In effect, he skillfully lays emotional, intellectual, and spiritual traps for the reader to sustain suspense.
He clearly understands the power of nouns and verbs over needless adjectives and adverbs. He has the ability to not only create a powerful and visual sense of place, but also shows, rather than tells the importance of place to his journey.
And while he is brutally honest with his personal suffering, struggles, and yearnings, he isn’t seeking sympathy, but rather uses them as motivation for his search. He describes without self-pity his family’s long and difficult history in California, just north of Sequoia National Park, but he never succumbs to the cheap writer’s trick of manipulating the reader emotionally. His path through the pain of his past is offered as an example of how others can make the same journey.