A Review of Prodigal by Blake Johnson
Reviewed by Well Read Beard
Blake Johnson’s Prodigal is a bleak American gothic story about running from disgrace, living through the shame, and dealing with the trauma. It’s a story about survival in a gray world where nothing else exists but just that… survival, existence. There is crime and drugs, but underneath it all, there is family. It’s not a story of family in the cozy traditional way, but a story of the wreckage that familial relationships can sometimes represent. The story is about the son, his father, and his older brother.
“The desert stretches.”
We are told the story from the perspective of the “brother” writing to his unborn child, but this story is really about the “son.” The story has a minimalist nature with the unnamed characters of “the father, the son, the brother,” which brings comparisons Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I read a bit about that, and there are a lot of connections to be drawn between these two books. In The Road we experience a bleak and barren wasteland. Check. McCarthy’s prose makes us feel that grit, that dirt, that bleakness. It translates this dark, everything-gray world into our imaginations. Check. This book does the same things. Back to that stretching desert, the brother has come home from war changed, traumatized: “Your mama says I never really left the desert, that I brought it home with me, but the truth is the desert is everywhere. Everything that isn’t empty and sunbaked is just a mirage. The desert stretches.”
The story is about the family, three members of the same family. The brother who has returned from war and spends every morning standing “still, calm, a sweat-slicked scarecrow” and staring down the scope of a rifle, firing at enemies only he can see. The son who is drowning in this dead-end town, but as we are soon to learn, he just can’t swim. And, the Father, who wants to build a church, but nothing can be built without sacrifice. Our son isn’t sacrificed to the cross, but there are definite similarities to be drawn with a father that would choose the salvation of his church over the survival of his blood.
The son runs off to the city for reasons that I won’t spoil here. In the city, we find a landscape more desolate and filthy than the rural one we left behind. We meet a cadre of characters that seem to blend in and out of the cityscape until they step forward to advance the plot. Each of these characters have something to offer us in the way of knowledge. The most important of these characters is the prescription drug lord Pin. It’s his city. Pin refers to the son as the pilgrim. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Yes, yes. Knowledge through travel. Wisdom through trial. The cost of heaven. All that good stuff, there are glimpses of all that here. Just glimpses though, the author doesn’t just give it all to you. You have to look.
Pin asks the son, “What do you think of my city?”
The son responds “It’s gray.”
We walked into the same city as the son. We have seen it through his eyes. It IS gray. It IS bleak.
But Pin says, “This city is anything but gray – No, this city is draped in motley. It bleeds rainbows and music and greater than all these things, love itself.”
The reader can feel that moment, not believe it, but feel it. At that moment it feels like the devil himself is trying to convince us that everything around us is not on fire. Pin was an extremely interesting character. He feels extraordinary, something off, almost supernatural.
The son is apprenticed into this new environment while the stakes continue to rise. Eventually too high, he has to return home. You already knew that. This is a modern retelling of the Biblical Prodigal Son, he has to return home to the chagrin of the loyal older brother.
The atmosphere in this book is overbearing, stifling at times. It is definitely a tangible presence throughout the story. Sometimes heaven looks a lot like hell. Sometimes home is no more comfort than being lost. Readers will feel that. For me, it was a positive. For me, the author put me there and made me feel those things and in that was the real beauty of the book. Make me think those things. Make me sink to those places. I could see some readers seeing something this bleak, something this redemption-free, something this gray (no matter what Pin tells us) as a negative. I didn’t see it that way.
Let’s talk about hopelessness. “The paper mill where the youths gathered was derelict, abandoned to moth and rust; here, at the very source and heart of their hopelessness, they sought a reprieve from the endless stretch of days to come.” That is your opening line for chapter 1. Wow. Tell me you live in a dead-end shit town without telling me you live in a dead-end shit town.
The book contains some unforgettable parts about a relationship between a father and a son.
“a relationship ill-defined, a murky symbiosis… a blend of instruction and long silences and unclear motivations.” For me, this just solidified the idea that in a book where the characters have no names other than father and son, one cannot continue to exist without the other.
So, I found a lot in this book. I am not afraid to admit that I probably missed a lot as well. Still, I think I would say that the art outweighed the story. I would definitely recommend it, but it’s different for sure. It’s probably not going to be for your average American grit lit reader. This one is for the pilgrims, and that is just what I am.