My first reaction to East of the Holyland was surprise at its style. If anyone knows what he is doing with words it is Bob Lind, so I knew his method was anything but inadvertent. There is plenty of inventive and vivid language in the novel, but it seemed to come in spurts; in between the prose struck me as fairly tame. I suppose my reaction was prompted by some of the reading I had done right before starting his book, which utilized a different approach. In any event, I adjusted to Bob's technique fairly quickly, and any "scruples" I had about the work ends there.
The book is a detailed account of one week in the life of a thoroughly unpleasant twenty-one year old folk singer named Jory. The events take place in Denver in 1964, and Jory might be described as an ego-maniac with an inferiority complex. Though these two sides of his nature might appear to be opposites, they are not really; they are two sides of the same coin. He is driven by fear, and copes with it by denying the hard realities of his situation (like the disappearing folk scene in Denver) and avoiding difficult choices. Meanwhile, his girlfriend absorbs the ugly manifestations of this unrest - he treats her in an incredibly abusive way - and she, by staying with him, shows she is as afraid of change as he is.
The problem with Jory is not that he is a man who lacks sensitivity. He is sharply perceptive of the emotions of others (except, sadly, his girlfriend's), and can empathize with many of their feelings. He even has a moment of sympathy for a motorcycle thug because in the biker's tone, "I heard his history. Somewhere in that dark past there was a promise that never again was he going to let anyone know how it hurt to be looked down on." The difficulty is that Jory's sensitivity doesn't motivate him to help others or make the slightest sacrifice on their behalf; instead, he uses his insight into others to exploit them or to make them feel responsible for his failures. A particularly cruel example of this occurs after an abortive attempt at a one-night stand when he covertly encourages the woman - a woman he senses to be lonely and vulnerable - to feel as if his impotence was due to her lack of attractiveness. "Better that," he observes, "than to have anyone believe Jory Durham was inadequate with women."
The characters in the book are convincing, and they are described in detailed fashion, often punctuated with humor. His best friend has, "cherubic cheeks flushed and pink like the face of a two year old, his dark hair flopped over his smooth and wrinkle-free forehead...." The most fascinating character is a bizarre man named Bill Bagel who lends a continuous undertone of tension and mystery to the story. He collects statuettes of movie stars, and when he shows them to Jory, he removes them from his case, "with a slowness and reverence that one might reserve for the ashes of a departed wife." This description is funny, but what follows next is anything but humorous. I wouldn't dream of describing it here, but it is a shocker. Before that happens, Bagel admonishes Jory for his lack of appreciation for his own talents, but Jory rejects the idea he has any special gift. Later though, Jory feels the same indignation Bagel felt toward him when he realizes that a folk singer he admires also underestimates his own abilities. As the book unfolds, Jory comes to understand that others share the same insecurities he has, which helps him appreciate himself in a more realistic way. Eventually this and other factors help him to more fully utilize his considerable skills.
Bob does an excellent job of describing Denver in the 1960s and especially of helping the reader enter the minds and emotions of folk singers and artists/performers in general. That is one of the novel's greatest strengths.
The last few chapters are a roller-coaster ride and redeem whatever reservations I may have initially had about the novel's style. I won't describe any of it here, but it is a wise idea to "fasten your seatbelt."
Chapter one contains a signature sentence which is repeated at the beginning of the final chapter, and it is no accident that it occurs twice: "Looking back at those days, what occurs to me most strongly is how little of lasting value is done for noble reasons and how much is sort of blundered into - not by accident really, but because the dormant, living treasures we carry within us find their own ways of bursting forth, despite our most devious efforts to f___ the process up." Though at first glance this observation may seem cynical, its message is ultimately a hopeful one. By getting ourselves "out of the way," by not forcing the process by our clamorous and blind efforts, the best within us is allowed to flower. As Jory puts it when describing his breakthrough performance of a song, "I didn't sing it as much as I allowed it to sing me."
I don't think I would call Holyland primarily a "message" novel or an attempt to advocate a particular philosophy of life. Jory's story can be interpreted in different ways and examined at various levels. At times I caught myself worrying that I was reading too deeply into the book, at other times that I was wasn't reading into it deeply enough. That is an excellent formula for confusing yourself. I would advise readers, for whatever it is worth, to "get themselves out of the way" and let the book do what it wants. The title of one of Bob's songs expresses this approach in a succinct way - "I Just Let it Take Me."
You'll catch a fleeting glimpse of someone's fading shadow...