Blogs about social issues can become so earnest some times that they occasionally induce bouts of self-righteous ennui. So, now and again, simple off-topic meanderings are a welcome diversion. Today I re-stumbled upon this book, almost 40 years after I first stumbled upon it, and all the “first time” feelings flooded back. It’s not about poverty, homelessness, or the injustice and violence of the mythical “deep state”. But most of its characters are lowlives, so I’m making the stretch.
I was 22 (1978), working on the rail gangs in Western Canada earning tuition, living in a caboose, and channeling Woodie Guthrie by spending what little free time I had playing revolutionary songs on a pawn shop guitar sitting atop a boxcar. That never gets stale, but drinking every night in prairie town hotels does, and I’d run out of things to read. ( I’d just finished Ulysses and the cupboard ran dry). So I took a chance on a paperback I found in a local drug store in a town that maybe a few hundred people have heard of. (“Well ain’t this place a geographical oddity! Two weeks from everywhere!” – ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. See what I did there with the reference to Ulysses?)
My mind was blown and slightly altered forever.
What grabs you, with both Sinai Tapestry and (to a just slightly lesser extent) it’s follow-up Jerusalem Poker, is the unholy mix of erudite historical speculation, wanton surreality, and gut-ache humour. Halfway through the first novel I still wasn’t completely sure what I’d stumbled upon but I knew I couldn’t stop. It was like a good/bad acid trip with hundreds of layers and unfathomable depth. And I don’t use the word “unholy” lightly. In previous eras this book (and Jerusalem Poker) would have been considered blasphemy of the highest order and unquestionably banned, with all sorts of woe poured down upon the author. Shakespeare called life “a tale told by an idiot”. Whittemore narrowed that metaphor down to The Bible.
The novel spans centuries, and The Quartet adds the remaining decades. The characters are not just larger than life but above it and beyond it. It’s not a typical fantasy. It takes place in our historical world and it doesn’t ask for the willing suspension of disbelief. It forces it upon you. There’s no magic in the accepted sense, unless the edges of reality can be called magic, and all of the events and characters are possible, if highly implausible. I’ve never laughed so hard while being educated in arcane history.
At first I thought it was just druggie humour (and it IS damn funny) and then I figured maybe historical speculation with a satirical edge, until it started playing with my mundane perceptions of time, history, and causality. It’s the kind of book (series) that weaves itself into your dreams.
Whittemore’s prose is brilliant, his historical research impeccable, his plotting intricate, and his sense of humour lies somewhere in that no man’s land between eccentric and clinically insane. I don’t intend to include spoilers, so the plot lines and characters are off limits, except to say that each and everyone is a complicated revelation. The history of the Levant (hence The Jerusalem Quartet) is the anchor, but around that anchor swirls a wild, weird universe of characters and events that drags you along with it, willingly. Combining history and metaphysics with deeply bizarre characterizations and making it all readable, didactic, emotionally engaging, entertaining, and hilarious is no mean feat. Whittemore is one of the best unknown authors of our time