book club: ‘your fathers, where are they? and the prophets, do they live forever?’

by Michael King

This past summer, I took a trip to New York with one of my best friends. It was his first time in the city, and we, a pair of writers who happen to direct residence halls, were searching for meaning in every direction. This translated, of course, to spending a graciously brief amount of time in our AirBnB and scouring the city for bookstores, coffee shops, and rocks on which to read.

In Brooklyn, on Fulton Street, there’s a bookstore called the Greenlight Bookstore. Unlike The Strand, the Greenlight is approachably small, with texts adorning tables and shelves as though curated by the tastes of the employees. There, I stumbled upon a book with an interesting cover and title: ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’

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The first thing to note about Your Fathers…, I think, is that the entire story is told through dialogue. Reading much like a play, the premise is revealed immediately: Looking for answers about what he perceives to be a broken world, a man kidnaps an astronaut and asks him the questions that have been keeping his mind from rest.

For me, the pages moved quickly between my fingertips. The dialogue moved along quickly, and I wasn’t certain what the central character would do. To my pleasant surprise, the elements that might be compromised by the choice to stick strictly to dialogue –– descriptions of the setting, clarity of the plot, poignancy of theme –– lived and breathed, alive and well, within the interchanges between the characters.

 “––Don’t you think that the vast majority of the chaos in the world is caused by a relatively small group of disappointed men?
––
––
––I don’t know. Could be.
––The men who haven’t gotten the work they expected to get. The men who don’t get the promotion they expected. The men who are dropped in a jungle or a desert and expected video games and got mundanity and depravity and friends dying like animals. These men can’t be left to mix with the rest of society. Something bad always happens.”

Without shedding light unto too much of the plot, the astronaut is not the central character’s only kidnapping effort in the story. Searching for answers, and driven by the conviction that he must do whatever he needs to uncover them, the character has conversations with a small array of characters, each interaction unearthing complex and difficult truths about the world he –– and we –– inhabit.

Each of the conversations reveals, also, a bit more about the life of a man who has been driven to such rash action. The cast of characters becomes uniquely fleshed out, and the reader watches the kidnapper struggle to arrange all of it into some semblance of meaning.

“––But of course it is. An accusation alone puts your entire character in doubt. This is how it works. An accusation is ninety percent of it. Anyone can ruin anyone with an accusation. And people are only too happy to write someone off, to throw them into the pile of the depraved and subhuman. One less person. There are too many people, the world is too crowded. We’re suffocating, right? And clearing some of them away lets us breathe. Each person we throw away fills our lungs with new air.
––You’re getting off topic.”

As the story progresses, themes of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and the kindness and cruelty of the world around us echo and resonate in the corners. A mother defends her decision to parent her children with objectivity. An astronaut sighs away the deferred dream of setting foot on the moon. A teacher defends his reputation, a congressman tries to help a man from destroying his life, a man struggles to understand the woman of his dreams declining his advances.

These moments, milestones and obstacles in these people’s lives, echo against the shifting morality of the world they inhabit. What if we build our lives around dreams, but the world shifts those dreams away by the time we get there? How many ways are there to devalue human life, and which ways do we turn the other way for? In what ways does injustice live and breathe in our day-to-day lives?

“––Yes, yes! I know that.
––But what happened at the hospital is something else. It’s not human. It’s not primal. So we don’t understand it. It’s a more recent mutation. The things we all have, love and hate and passion, and the need to eat and yell and screw, these are things every human has. But there’s this new mutation, this ability to stand between a human being and some small measure of justice and blame it on some regulation. To say that the form was filled out incorrectly.”

The pages, as you might imagine, move faster and faster as the conclusion draws closer. Kidnappers draw attention to themselves, particularly as they kidnap more people, and captive people can’t expect to predict the actions/morality of their captors. What is he going to do, I asked myself, and, is he going to be killed?

The dialogue moves the story along, the central character becoming increasingly desperate and resolved to discover the answers he needs to understand the world he feels has failed him. In doing so, he reveals his pain, his scars, and his dreams, granting humanity to a character doing the inhuman.

When I finished Your Fathers…, I needed to rest. I set it down, gathered my hammock, stretched it between two trees, and swayed for a while in the silence. Any text that can do so, particularly through the device of dialogue, is one I’d deem worth reading. I won’t remember every aspect of the novel’s plot, but some pieces of it will stick in me forever, and that, to me, makes a read worthwhile.

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