Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Crimson Footprints by Shewanda Pugh

Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen

5 out of 5 stars

The balancing act of life…

Deena Hammond is a 24 year old architect living and working in her home town of Miami, Florida.  In some ways Deena is very successful, but she comes from a poor background, and in many ways she is still inextricably tied up with those origins.  Her grandmother, Emma Hammond, who brought Deena up, is constantly demanding and never satisfied.  Deena’s adult brother Anthony is a small-time criminal, and her sister Lizzie, though still at school, is incorrigibly wayward and seems headed for a disaster of a life.  Deena is half African-American and half white and feels that she was never really accepted by the black side of her family when they took her in as a child.  In very harrowing circumstances Deena meets Takumi (Tak for short) Tanaka, the son of her world famous, distant and demanding boss Daichi Tanaka.  Immediately the personal chemistry and attraction seems right, but everything else between these two people seems impossible.  Deena is a mere underling.  Should she even be talking to the son of the owner of the business she works for?  What is more Deena’s family very much expects her to date a black man.  Can these two people overcome the odds and form a friendship, or even the romance they both desire?

Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints can certainly be classified as a romance; however, it is much more than that.  It is a story of class consciousness and racial division.  It is about the struggle to find the right equilibrium between work and family, and it is a story about trying to ‘do the right thing’.  Most of all, this novel is about balance in all things.  We are all different, but we must overcome our resistances and come to the center ground if we are truly going to be a success in life.

Pugh has managed to successfully weld sweet romance with biting ‘slice of life’.  Romance, especially the first phase, usually seems enjoyable, even with its ups and downs and Pugh captures the pleasant nature of first love well.  Mixed in with these chapters, though, are insights into the often seedy, cruel world of the lower class.  This juxtaposition works very well, jarring us, and reminding us that while life can seem pleasurable, there is always harshness, perhaps not too distant from us.  There is considerable irony in the contrasts between Deena’s romance, and her striving for career success, and Lizzie’s pure-flesh ‘sexploits’ and base efforts to get ahead (for example the Ch. 7 / Ch. Ch. 8 contrast).  Pugh’s phrasing, particularly at peak moments, is often excellent, lifting her prose from the mundane.  In Chapter 1, for example, which describes the run down suburb of Liberty City, we read of “Torn fences that imprison rather than embellished” the houses which Deena passes.  This care with words, and occasionally poetic turn of phrase, helps to mark out the book as more than the average read.  There are moments of pure humor, particularly the events surrounding Takumi’s cousin Mike and his fumbling attempts to capture Deena’s attention (CH. 47 & following).  There are also moments of true shock and also scenes of high drama that take us far from the average world of romance.  Pugh has included occasional swearing, and sex is very openly discussed and depicted.  This may offend conservative readers, but is certainly justified by the themes, characters and story line.

The book has a more unusual plot structure.  Part One (Ch. 1 - 7) serves as a general introduction to the Hammond and Tanaka families, and to Deena’s work.  The plot peaks early, then builds as complications follow.  Part Two (Ch. 8 – 42) is a very long section covering Tak and Deena’s extended holiday road-trip across much of the U.S.  Romance blooms as Deena learns to loosen up, then a series of couples are met.  These couples serve to show how Tak and Deena’s love perhaps could work.  The sequence comes to an unexpected close as events suddenly twist in a crisis.  This Part could perhaps have been divided into two sections, though the whole sequence is certainly united by the structure of the holiday.  Part Three (Ch. 43 – 64) covers the problem of the hidden nature of the romance, centering on complications during a working holiday break.  The disastrous climax of the novel is reached followed by a brief sequence wrapping up circumstances with the Tanaka family.  Part Four (Ch. 65 – 67) describes the complications with Emma.  This section is quite brief and perhaps could have been extended a little considering Deena’s grandmother’s earlier resistance, tenacity and belligerence.  The Epilogue, set some years in the future wraps up the plot lines nicely, though one question is pointedly left open.

As already indicated the main theme of Crimson Footprints is balance, or Difference/Harmony.  We like people ‘like us’, but we are all individuals.  What does it really mean to be ‘like me”?  Is this merely a matter of externals, or are internals more important?  We need to accept who people are, and where they came from, but not be bound by that.  An openness in outlook and balance is needed otherwise we will be bound forever in very limited circumstances.  On another level, how do we handle the conflict between work and family / social life?  Is one demand more important than another?  Can we neglect either?  Of course there are no easy answers, though those may be the first to come to us.  Life is complicated and this book explores these complications.

The family is a second important theme.  Families can be both sources of pain and sources of strength, and both features can occur in the same kinfolk.  Families are what make us, but at the same time are what we grow from.  They can be conservatively stolid, relying heavily on tradition, or can adapt to new circumstances.  We can ignore them, but we can never really escape them.  Following from tradition, a family can be a basic mother, father and children, or it can be a less conventional grouping.  Families are very basic to human nature and being taken in, or adopted, does not make it of less importance to us.  This very contrary institution in fact dominates us.  We come from families and then we make new families, or at least extend those which we have.

Another important theme in the novel is what could broadly be termed as success.  We are encouraged to ‘do our best’, to ‘do good’, to ‘shine’.  What is success and what are the traits that allow us to see it?  Is it hard work resulting in material objects?  Is it love, honesty, caring and ethics resulting in respect and attachment?  Is there room for both?  Millennia ago the ancient Greeks asked, “What is the good citizen?”  In response they formulated the idea of “Virtue” (Ben Dupre. 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know: Quercus, 2007, p. 96 – 99), that is, the character traits that make us wisely successful in both working life and family life, and indeed everything that we do.  This idea of ‘virtue’ is central to Pugh’s novel.  Deena struggles to be a ‘good person’ ethically, socially and work-wise.  For her these are not separate issues, and not merely because she is in love with the boss’s son: all are tied up with who she is as a person.  Of course there is success in terms of one social class’s ideals or another’s, but what is truly wise success.  In the end isn’t success really related to what makes us “happy” (Ch. 20), as complex an issue as that may be?

Following from this there is also a minor theme of ‘religion verses ethics’.  The Christian religion claims to be the guide for good, but surely considering the evil things that befall us for no reason we should conclude that God in some ways unfairly hates us (Ch. 2)?  Indeed doesn’t hell hang over us like some permanent, inescapable damnation (Ch. 2)?  Even if these things aren’t entirely correct theologically, aren’t accusation and condemnation how Christians really act?  Is this really what good is all about?  Equally, for so many, isn’t Buddhism in reality simply a constraining tradition full of rules about obligation (Ch. 10), rather than a source of right behavior leading to internal peace?  Once again this may not be correct according to the true tenets of Buddhism, but isn’t this how it often works out in practice?  If religion in practice isn’t such a good guide for ‘goodness’, what do we take as our guide?  Surely we must fall back into the painful position of finding our own way, and indeed Deena must struggle to find her own position.

Deena Hammond is an interesting character who we immediately like and care about.  What strikes us is her positivity in very negative circumstance and her determination to get somewhere better.  Deena is a ‘Star’, without being too perfect.  Despite her determination, in certain circumstances, particularly with her Grandmother, she collapses.  What unites these converse character elements is the fact that she is a self-accuser.  Her accusation drives her on to career success, but also holds her up in her battle with her domineering Grandmother.  While she accuses herself, Deena is somewhat driven to help others, particularly her siblings.  This kind of complexity does much to make Deena seem more real to the reader.  She is no cardboard cut-out.  Deena must learn to limit her career “expectations” (Ch. 12) and not rely so much on “reason” (Ch. 16) alone to solve problems.  These are human challenges the reader can recognize and understand, even if they do not personally suffer from them.

Takumi Tanaka is in some ways the ‘perfect man’ every woman dreams about.  He is “athletic” (Ch. 1), a success at both art and business (Ch. 5) and caring.  His limitation is that, while he can understand Grandmother Emma all too well, he only has a limited understanding of his own father and family.  Despite this the reader wonders if Tak could have had just one or two more faults to make him more human.

Grandmother Emma Hammond is an appropriate nemesis.  She is a narrow minded bigot, uneducated, an immense hypocrite and appropriately venomous, though occasionally she can give way.  The words “consistently hostile” (Ch. 1) certainly sum her up.  Her Christianity is certainly a biting irony.

Daichi Tanaka is describe by a magazine is “Architectural God” (Ch. 3) and his behavior exhibits the kind of flaws that such adulation would certainly bring.  He can be arrogant, bad tempered, rude and cold, but he is also willing to give others a chance to prove themselves, and even work to bring out the best in people. Daichi is like Deena in his determined, even driven nature, and in his concern for others, but quite different in his self-adulation.  Pugh has these two character form an interesting and rich relationship, and has managed to make Daichi equally complex.

Examined from the perspective of Feminism it can easily be seen that Deena is a successful young career woman and entirely self-made. Deena’s challenge is to live up to the goals set by Betty Friedan (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90 – 94) of being successful both in her job and family life, without falling into the same traps that men do (primarily flavoring career over relationships).  Hatsumi, Tak’s mother, however, is by marked contrast a 1950’s woman: unloved, unhappy, trapped at home, but beautifully dressed.  Even Hatsumi, however, has a certain dignity and demonstrates a mind of her own, showing how women can rise above these circumstances.  Emma, for all her failings, is certainly headstrong.  Lizzie has a mind of her own, but serves as representative of the ‘sex object’ so propagated by traditional media and male driven dominance.  Pugh makes it more than clear that according to her this option is not to be desired.  Rhonda, Deena’s aunty, is also a career woman (Ch. 4), but demonstrates the bigotry which the ‘new woman’ faces as she must “constantly field unfounded accusations that she is a lesbian” (Ch. 4) simply because she does not fit a very narrow picture of what a woman should be like.

Daichi is very representative of the 1950’s male role model, being a stranger to both his feelings and his family, and believing that his duty as a male is solely to provide income.  He sees himself as the family figure head.  As the story progresses, however, this position comes under increasing, condemning scrutiny.  Tak, by contrast, is the twenty first century man: not New Age / Spiritual, but none the less in touch with his own feelings, and caring of others.  As an artist he expresses freedom and creativity, rather than being trapped in a rigid role.  Anthony Hammond, Deena’s brother, represents that large group of men who have not progressed to the standard proposed by twenty first century male Gender Studies.  He is everything a man should not be, trapped in a 1950’s ‘tough rebel’ role, renamed “gasgsta” (Ch. 56) as if it were something new.

This is by far a predominantly heterosexual novel, though, LGBTIQ people are very briefly represented by Bridget, “a lesbian” (Ch. 20), who is positively depicted as a successful career woman.  Two quite large families are depicted in the novel, plus other minor characters, and we wonder if more of a representation of LGBTIQ people could have been made, particularly in a book where ‘difference’ is an important theme.

The aged, who are often ignored in society, are chiefly represented by Emma Hammond, though this is clearly not a sympathetic depiction.  Of course being old does not automatically make you nice or wise.  The absent character of Eddie Hammond, Emma’s husband, is equally uncomplimentary, though that is not surprising as the two belong together, having chosen each other as partners.  Yukiko, Tak’s grandmother, by contrast proves to have learned wisdom over the years and in an important scene gives Daichi very useful words of advice.

This is a novel very much about minorities and highlights the difficulties those who would reach beyond their group face, as well as the difficulties those of mixed racial background face.  African-Americans are highlighted, as are the U.S. minority of Japanese-Americans.  This is, however, not really a book about political agenda or advancement in the standard way Post-Colonial Studies thinks.  We do not, for example, really hear of civil rights.  The social history behind African-American food is certainly mentioned early on (Ch. 4), and we hear that this is the food of slaves who must do with left overs.  Also we hear that architecture should reflect the culture of the ethnic group (e.g. Mayan farmers) and empower these local groups (Ch. 3).  As has been seen, both Deena and Rhonda are successful, black career women, and Daichi is certainly successful way beyond the normal expectations.  The bigotry faced by both Japanese and Negroes in the U.S. is also briefly touched on as is the difficulties of mixed race couples (Ch. 57).  The difficulties of people of mixed racial origin are also mentioned (Ch. 22).  In all of this, however, the emphasis is on personal coping rather than political agenda.  As has been said, this is a book about ‘Virtue’, and Pugh’s aim is to demonstrate the personal attitude in the face of these circumstances is what is important.  Personal action to overcome poverty, for example, is the solution, rather than simply social programs.  This is illustrated by the marked contrasts between the Tanaka and Hammond families.  The Tanakas, despite their problems and failings, are educational achievers, work achievers and socially successful.  The Hammonds, on the other hand ignore education, choose criminal careers, and glory in social bigotry and abrasiveness.  They lead lives full of failure and ineptitude and seem to glory in it.  Deena and Rhonda are of course the exception.  As can be seen Pugh is not pulling her punches.  This is a tough message and will be unpopular with at least some, though her message is overwhelmingly one of hope.

Similar to the position on minorities, Pugh takes an unusual stand in the Capitalist / Socialist debate.  The evils of poverty are openly depicted.  One example is the Liberty City high school where it is virtually impossible to take driver education courses because of under-resourcing (Ch. 7).  There is no doubt that people should be able to live better.  But once again the primary solution is personal virtue and not government programs.  Opulent wealth is not openly condemned, far from it, but it is not placed above interpersonal caring and personality characteristics of value.  Monetary wealth is of value, but not if that is all you have.  This is certainly in keeping with the theories of Marx (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, Ch. 6), but is hardly standard Socialism.  Pure Capitalism at the expense of virtue is certainly to be denied.  Anthony has his “Air Jordans” (Ch. 6) and Lizzie has her tawdry, growing personal income, but at what expense to them personally?  None the less this novel is in part a celebration of the American rags to riches ideal: the self-made man/woman.

Pugh is of course aiming to write about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life, and so the field of psychology comes into play.  Psychology aims to discover truths about human nature and behaviour, and so is a useful tool and aid to fiction.  Deena is primarily motivated by guilt instilled in her by her overly-critical, religious grandparents who “bullied” her relentlessly (Ch. 12), and as a result is very critical of herself (Ch. 7), though she has achieved much in her life.  She is controlled by the voice of others rather than her own “decision making and self-regulation” (Michael J. Formica. Guilt is a Wasted Emotion: Psychology Today: July 25, 2008,   She is a rigid planner (Ch. 9) locked in schemes to ensure success, so that the critical voices (now in her head) will be appeased.  Of course Deena must break free of this circumstance, and that is a major plot line in the book.  Also it can be noted that Deena is a “rescuer” (Andrea Matthews. The Rescuer Identity: Psychology Today: April 21, 2011,, who feels that she must ‘save’ her sister and brother, but is never successful in doing so.  She carries out her ‘mission’ at great expense to her own development.  She tries to ‘save’ others, but has never really established her own self-worth.  Once again, it is clear that Deena must overcome this issue and Pugh explores this plot line in some detail.

A name can often help to shape us into the people we are, and studying names can sometimes help the reader to understand fiction.  According to David L. Gold (A Dictionary Of Surnames: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 237) the family name Hammond means “home”, with the special implications of “high [ … ] protection” and “ancestor  [… ] protection”.  This is certainly very ironic as Deena’s home is indeed anything other than a place of strong refuge, and her grandparents are hardly shields against the ill-will of the world.

Pugh’s novel is not heavily symbolic: however, the image of architecture hangs over the whole book.  Architecture is “order in a world of chaos, sense in a world of madness” (Ch. 9).  It can be something false and contrived that we impose on nature, or it can blend with the environment, as Deena wants to do with her Postmodern theories (Ch. 5).  It can construct artificiality or it can deconstruct our fake ideas of life (Ch. 3).  As has been noted Deena is trapped in the construction of her family and their “expectations” (Ch. 12), as well as her own, and needs to break free into her own natural being.

Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints has many aspects to it. It has the themes of difference / harmony, family and success, which are explored in some detail.  Its characters tend to be complex and life-like, and are in tune with the ideas of modern psychology.  The issues of racial and class division are explored in depth.  The limitations of 1950’s values for both men and women are depicted, and the alternatives, as proposed by Feminism and Gender Studies, are examined.  The role of money verses personal worth, as seen in the Capitalist / Socialist debate, is investigated in some detail, though Pugh chooses an individual solution, and is not bound by the constrains of either of those theories.  Pugh writes well and she has created a successful novel which I am happy to rate as 5 stars out of 5.

Shewanda Pugh

Thursday, 5 December 2013

A 3rd Time To Die by George A. Bernstein

By Susan McMichael

4 out of 5 starts

What is it about you stranger?

This is a love story with a mystery at the heart of it, a paranormal mystery.  Why can Ashley Easton speak French so well?  Why can she ride a horse so well, after only riding for just a few weeks?  Who is the mysterious young man she meets in the dressage competition, and why is he so alluring?  A 3rd Time to Die by George A. Bernstein is a love story and a mystery, rolled into one.  It uses the concept of reincarnation as an interesting plot device.

Our first glimpse of Ashley Easton is of a woman rescuing a horse:

"Hey quit that!"  Her shout raspy, she banged the gate with the side of the pitchfork. (p. 25)

The horse has always represented passion and desire in literature, and A 3rd Time to Die is no exception.  Ashley's new horse brings her excitement and energy into her life and allows a new relationship to flourish.  Ashley is revitalised and energized by rescuing the horse; it also brings into sharp relief the way her life has changed. Ashley is an engaging character who knows her own mind and who is financially independent.  She feels a great deal, but takes a long time to act on these feelings: this is Ashley Easton's challenge.  The reader feels the occasional sense of frustration, and is delighted she finally gets herself going.

Ashley’s lover, Craig Thornton is lovely and is everything that Ashley needs and wants: he is the polar opposite to Ashley's husband Keith, and is charming, interesting, fascinated by Ashley, shares her interests, and is caring.  Their relationship changes over time, and as they learn more about each other, their characters develop in surprising and engrossing ways.  A personal fault or two, however,  might have helped to make Craig more real.

Craig Thornton is also an interesting contrast to Ashley because his marriage is breaking down, but it's not his fault: his wife is the one who is cheating.  Bernstein thus sets up interesting parallels and contrasts in the relationships.  The two spouses, Keith and Toni, are not pleasant characters.  Keith is a husband totally lost from the relationship: he ignores the children and takes a mistress.  I would have preferred a little more shading to these spouses to add more real complexity of personality: Keith doesn't help with the children, doesn't like anything about his wife anymore, is nasty in his other relationships; but has no redeeming quality.  He is a little too bad to be human.  He seems to have no saving grace : I know Craig is lovely but Keith must have been OK at one  point.

The novel examines relationships. The men and women in A 3rd Time to Die are not just seeking anyone but someone special. In the opening 1895's past-life visionary flashback Charles sees in Victoria, a woman who is "passionate, sensuous and willful" (p. 6).  He loves her for these qualities, and Ashley and Craig are similarly looking for very special traits.

Soul mates are important in this novel - people click and realize they are meant to be together. The website of the Australian Psychological Society says that: "newer fields of psychology, especially transpersonal psychology and ecopsychology, are taking seriously the holistic notion of human beings as comprising mind, body, and soul. These fields propose that people are spiritual beings living a human life that extends beyond our mundane existence and skin-encapsulated ego-self to include direct experience of the environment and the cosmos.  They recognize the importance of integrating spiritual with physical and mental reality, that spirituality is but one part of the whole.” (  The complications of the soul mates and reincarnation that have to be overcome make a really interesting plot device in this novel.  The question of whether Ashley and Craig will survive their love, and who is against them and intends them harm is a gripping question.

The last main character is the psychologist Dr Feldman.  He is an interesting character: he's helpful, but indecisive and his eventual insights and understandings moved the plot along.  Feldman is one of Joseph Campbell's helpers . In Monomyth, Cambell explains that:  "For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass. What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny.” (  Feldman helps Ashley and Craig understand what is happening.  This relationship is a satisfying aspect of the novel.

Ashley and Craig share a love of horse riding. As has been noted, the horse has always represented strong emotions and passionate desires in literature and this is also true in A 3rd Time To Die.  Since D. H. Lawrence, the horse has been a staple representation of sexuality, freedom and power.  Ashley's horse in the novel represents all the freedom of her youth, the regained sexuality that her unfulfilled marriage has stripped from her, as well as links to the past.  A secondary meaning for the horse spirit animal is the balance between the instinctive and tamed parts of your personality.  Ashley is thus more real when she is with her horse, Injun, than when she is in her house.  She feels freer, her speech with Craig is more natural, but she also learns more about herself and the issues that are troubling her: "Jeez, that's when this started!  The sense of riding through woods and whispered thoughts in French.  Nothing as intense as now.  Why the fantasy only haunt her when jumping a horse?" (p. 87).  This is the symbolism of the nature / culture dichotomy.

The story’s structure is that of several parts with the first long section establishing the various different relationships.  Ashley spends a considerable amount of time analyzing her (hopeless) marriage, before concluding that there is nothing to be done.  This section was long and drawn out.  I wondered why it took so long to get to a resolution of this point.  Once the relationship with Craig was established and Bernstein managed to bring the pair together, the book moved along at a great pace.
In the final section the plot lines are drawn to a satisfying conclusion and the lovers’ relationship and future, and the circumstance of the nemesis are well resolved.  A final catastrophic climax is well done and keeps the reader guessing until the last moment.

The role of money in the novel is interesting: Ashley is well off, thanks to her Father's money.  She uses the processes and systems and makes them work for her to improve her life, rather than just make more money.  This is a positive role for women.

A 3rd Time to Die's main theme is of course reincarnation.  Have these people lived other lives?  Who were they?  Who is after Ashley and Craig now?  Carl Jung believed that in a person's life, synchronicity served a role similar to that of dreams, with the purpose of shifting a person's egocentric conscious thinking to greater wholeness.  Dr. Feldman helps promote this view in the novel.  He is also a psychiatrist using various methods to assist his patients.  Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience.  Transpersonal experiences may be defined as "experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos."  Issues considered in transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, self beyond the ego, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance and other sublime and/or unusually expanded experiences of living. (  Dr. Feldman moves from a more reductionist view of the mind to a more spiritual, Transpersonal approach and indeed the question of this new ideology and philosophy become central to the book.

A 3rd Time to Die is a love story with a twist, a paranormal mystery with an engaging heroine and plot surprises and developments which were very satisfying.  The characters develop in interesting ways through time and as the novel progresses.  The relationships were interesting and well-drawn.  The plot lines are drawn to a satisfying conclusion, and the lover relationship and mystery of foreboding doom are well resolved.  The conclusion is gripping and the answer is unexpected and pleasingly surprising.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 stars out of 5.

SuspenseGuy (George Bernstein's blog) 

 George A. Bernstein

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Hypocrites In His Midst: A Story About Flawed Human Beings by Donnell Wilson

By Raymond Mathiesen

4.5 out of 5 stars

The long road from street gangs to success…

Wilton Latso is seventy two years old and a grandfather.  In the middle of a heated argument with his adult daughter Abbie, Wilton realizes that she has no idea of who he is, where he came from, and why he did the things he did when he was bringing her up.  Spontaneously Wilton starts remembering and soon he decides to write down the story of his life.  Wilton came from a poor family living in a poor suburb of St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1940’s / early 1950s.  In this era of street gangs Wilton is soon introduced to a world of violence, ego and selfishness.  Wilton’s parents are staunch Pentecostal Christians, but Wilton doubts that faith from the start.  The trouble is that he can see all too clearly his parent’s hypocrisy, particularly his mother’s.  Throughout his life Wilton will continue to observe people, noting many to be hollow, offering friendship, espousing beliefs but proving to be fakes.

Donnell Wilson’s Hypocrites In His Midst: A Story About Flawed Human Beings is a fictional autobiography spanning seven decades.  It is a story of “redemption” (Ch. 8) in a secular sense.  This is a book about trying to “do the right thing” (Ch. 3), though the “right thing” (Ch. 2) is not always obvious or easy to achieve.  Wilson’s novel, especially in the first three Parts, is broadly comparable to Nicky Cruz’s real life autobiography Run Baby Run (Logos, 1972), though that book is firmly Christian, while this book is firmly agnostic (Ch. 31).  Most of all, this book is about how a person can growing to maturity (or avoid it).

The novel is a first person narrative and as a result we hear much of the main characters thoughts and opinions and much less of the perspective of other people.  This is very much a central character novel, partly because of the narrator’s self-confessed ignorance of and difficulty with “relationships” (Ch. 1).  Other people are a mystery.  For example Evelyn, Willy’s teenage bride (Ch. 2), remains in many ways a mystery throughout the whole book though she is ‘present’ for twenty one chapters.  Also, throughout much of his life Willy has unstable job circumstances and as a result the story has many minor characters that come and go without Wil or the reader really getting to know them.  It is indeed Willy’s frequent complaint that this happens (Ch. 1 and following).  As it can be seen the book could have benefited from more dramatized conversations and events that illustrated the perspective of other characters, especially the main characters, and perhaps some of the minor characters could have been left out.  The novel works very well, however, as an exploration of one man’s character and by the end of the story we feel as though we really know and understand Willy and have learned what life can be like for someone quite different to ourselves.  Wil is very much from a lower class background, a regular frequenter of bars, and the narrative has the chatty ethos of a reminiscing story told by a friend, perhaps at a party or a pub.  There is frequent foul language, sex is openly described and discussed and violence is openly depicted.  This is certainly justified and in keeping with the ‘underworld’ ethos of the book, but conservative people may be offended.  There are occasional “Oh my gosh!” moments and scenes of high tension which are well written.  The marijuana trip and LSD trip in Chapter 13 very much capture the ‘Hey man! Cool!’ atmosphere of the sixties giving the reader an off-beat, fun, but dangerous, slightly “paranoid” (Ch. 13) feeling.  In passages like this Wilson reveals his true skill as an author.  Early in the story Wil’s friends take up calling him “Willy Lost Soul” and indeed the name Latso can be seen as a play on the words ‘lost soul’.  Wil is a lost soul in the criminal underworld, but also a soul seeking personal ‘redemption’, albeit in an unconventional secular sense.

The plot is divided into five parts.  Part I (Ch. 1 – 6) covers Wil’s childhood, gang membership and street life, teenage marriage and first jobs.  Wilson then describes Willy’s first major attempt to exit his ‘underworld’ style of living by attending trade school and then working as a car body man and painter.  The section ends in a major climax that moves Wil to new territory in an unexpected way.  In Part II: A New Beginning (Ch. 7 – 10) Wil’s family moves to a new suburb and a partially better life.  This section concentrates on Darwin, Wil’s younger brother who is perhaps in some ways even more lost than him.  Wil attempts to help Darwin.  He also gains his GED school qualification and begins a writing course in order to see if he can fulfil his childhood dream of being a writer.  Once again events come to a crisis, though this time not so unforseen.  Part III: Farewell Party (Ch. 11 – 21) sees Wil’s family Move to Boulder, Colorado where Wil meets and befriends Merlin an ‘out-there’ character who is deep into drug culture.  This part depicts the late 1960’s / early1970’s Counterculture very well.  The reader feels both an amusement and frustration with Wil as he seems to repeat his teenage mistakes all be it in a new way.  Wil is never quite a ‘drop-out’ and he develops a bond with Merlin in a way he has never had with anyone else.  Part III comes to a peak of a different kind, then there are two final chapters and the plot peaks again.  Part IV: Learning the Three R’s – Rita, Reba, and Rachel (Ch. 22 – 33) covers love relationships with the title women.  Rita receives six chapters, but Reba and Rachel are only allotted three each.  Once again the reader is interested by these more unusual women but frustrated by Wil as he seems never to overcome his problem with human relationships.  Once more there is a final unexpected crisis which propels Wil into a new life.  Part V: Pain, Love, Redemption, and Success (Ch. 34 – 41) introduces us to Katie a nurse who becomes Wil’s final love interest.  In this section Wil finally gains more maturity forming a more happy relationship, more enjoyable career and financial success.  Wil observes, however, that in some ways people are the same wherever you are.  As can be seen the book involves a certain amount of reputation on a theme, though each part is quite different from the last.  As the book progresses Wil earns and so it is important to point out that the novel is not quite as repetitive as this very bare outline may make it seem.

Wilton Latso is a very flawed, but likable character.  “Moxie” (Ch. 1 and following) is a characteristic he likes in his friends and is perhaps his own central trait.  Wil is very determined and always fights back.  He wants to do what is right, but right by his standard.  He repeatedly says that he basically wants to be “left alone” (Ch. 1 and following), but finds that this is just what interfering people will not allow.  On the down side Wil’s independence leads him into trouble and his individuality has a selfish side.  He is ignorant of people and this compounds his selfishness.  His early life has made him violent (psychologically and physically) and he repeatedly uses aggression rather than his creative intelligence to solve problems.  Wil is in many ways like the ‘tough guy hood’ we all secretly admired in high school, who gave teachers grief, won fights and took flak from nobody.  But while we later grew away from these things, though we never forgot them, Wil does not do this until much later (and in some ways not at all).  We both like and dislike this very individual man, and his dynamo character certainly carries us through the book keeping us interested, if not always in an admiring way.  We care enough about will to want things to go right for him.

Merlin is an important main character and the reader feels, as they do with Wil, both attraction and disapproval.  Merlin is very easy-going and affable, also in a boyish way.  He laughs a lot and is trustworthy as a friend.  He is adventurous, but this is also his failing quality, as is his boyishness, as it leads him into an extreme life far from tried and tested ‘normality’.  Like Willy we care for him and are carried along by him, caught up in his adventures and misadventures.

Rita, Reba and Rachel are all in their individual ways escapees from ‘normality’, each intriguing, but each having pronounced failings.  Rita is very much an ‘out-there, zany lady,’ a product of the Counterculture.  Not so long ago she was very much in into the drug scene, particularly LSD, and she still suffers from “flashbacks and hallucinations” (Ch. 25).  She is sexually free and adventurous, and generally a free spirit who in many ways we like, particularly at first.  Like many in the 1960s, however, Rita is adrift, lacking a centre, and even more than Wil she wants things and is willing to grab them in whatever way she can.  If Rita is sexually adventurous, Reba is the ‘sex queen’.  She and her partner Chuck have an ‘open relationship’ and are very ‘happening’ people.  Reba also wants things, but seems unsure of the details.  She doesn’t really know her mind.  Rachel wants most of all to be loved and to be with a man that shows that love, but she holds herself aloof or even worse is aggressive.  These failings partly prevent her from entering into the very love relationship she desires, and in depression, and perhaps desperation, she turns to drink.  Rachel, too, is sexually adventurous, but in her dissatisfaction in life this makes her shifting rather than solid.  All of these women, in their individual ways, promise love, but all are characterized by emptiness at their core.  They are intriguing without being necessarily ‘good’ characters.

Katie, Wil’s final love, is “naïve, affectionate, very intelligent, warm, and pretty” (Ch. 35).  She is a nurse and this reflects her helping nature.  She is centred in others, rather than herself.  While naïve she has the ability to learn to ‘get tough’ and that is exactly what she does.  We like Katie because she is nice, but has her own style of “moxie” (Ch. 35).  Katie also has a solid base that the other major women characters in the book do not have.

All these characters interest us and move us forward in the plot, though we do not completely ‘like’ most of them.  What captures us about most is that they are quite different from the ‘normal’.  These are people from the ‘wild’ side of life.

As the title suggests Wilson’s novel has hypocrisy as a major theme.  People very much like to put up a front of ‘respectability’, but then say and do things that are far from this public persona.  Even more, under the guise of ‘uprightness’ people like to interfere in the affairs of others, telling them what to do, but they themselves prove to be distant from ‘goodness’.  Organisations, such as the church, government and business, can be particularly guilty of this, and those who participate in them tend to follow suit.  But then even ‘drop-outs’ can prove to be less than ‘happening’.  Self-hypocrisy is perhaps something that we are all victims of.  We say to ourselves that we are one thing, want one thing, believe one thing, but really we are fooling ourselves.

The other side of hypocrisy is true values and ethics, what could be called secular spirituality.  Wil believes that relationships should be based on “respect” (Ch. 1), but not the fake kind implied by class or money.  We should “do unto others” (Ch. 2) as we ourselves would like to be treated.  We should not break our word (Ch. 4).  Wil sees the idea of eternal punishment “for sinning seventy years” as anything but “fair” (Ch. 2): balanced justice is important to him.  He sees that we should be basically free to live our own lives, as long as we do no real harm, and be free of “accusation” (Ch. 3), and of course we should not accuse others.  Beyond this, going deeper into spirituality, Willy has his own non-conventional kind of spirituality.  He is mildly interested in astrology.  He espouses views similar to the Unitarian faith (Ch. 6 & 31), particularly the idea that we are all on a journey up a mountain, though we are climbing it from different sides (i.e. different faiths).  A car accident makes him very aware of the reality of death (Ch. 10) and later he experiences a ‘vision’ of someone he knew who is dead (Ch. 21) while friends of his experience strange occurrences at the exact time of the death of another (Ch. 37).

The theme of success is very strong in the novel.  We often say that riches are hollow, but living without money, and perhaps worse, without a sense of achieving something is very difficult.  Perhaps only those who come from poor backgrounds truly understand this.  But does owning property, such as a house, assure us of success, and isn’t true success more than money?

Closely allied to the theme of success is the idea of maturation / search for the self.  Wilson’s novel is very much about personal change: going from unhappiness to happiness, healing hurts.  We are all hurt, but some of us are hurt more than others.  Is it possible to lift ourselves out of the circumstances we are born into?  What must we sacrifice along the way?  Is change sometimes thrust upon us?

The first part of the novel very much depicts the 1950’s biased view of women.  A classic example of this is the notion that men have affairs, while women, being ‘good little women’ do not (Ch. 3).  In the character of Evelyn women’s dissatisfaction under the restrictions of this era is very much depicted.  Feminist criticisms of society and solutions, however, are only hinted at.  Evelyn wants to ‘find herself’, but never seems to really achieve this, though she does take charge of her life and gain a new kind of positive confidence.  The 1960’s version of Feminism is hinted at in the character of Rachel (Ch. 31), but this character is certainly not depicted sympathetically.  The freedom of the 60s, including freedom for women, seems to ring false in the three characters of Rita, Reba and Rachel.  It is 1980’s that we come upon a more mature version of womanhood in the character of Katie.  In this character we have a depiction of a woman closer to Betty Friedan’s ideas (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90-94), that is both successful in her career and her family life, without betraying her femininity or becoming false.

Similar to women and Feminism, the novel very much shows men in their 1950’s guise, before the liberation of Gender Studies.  Wil must be the ‘tough guy’ full of bluster and fight.  He is indeed afraid to be afraid (Ch. 1).  Wil is afraid of emotions and sees them, if anything as weakness.  Crying is certainly something men don’t do (Ch. 4).  For Wil relationships are difficult, if not a complete mystery (Ch. 1 & 2).  In a marriage “the man is supposed to be in charge, not the woman” (Ch. 4).  A man’s job in a relationship is seen as not much more than working to provide an income.  But the whole novel depicts an evolution away from this situation as the story progresses.  Indeed, right from the start Wil sees the caring nature of his father and grandfather as something to be admired (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36).  Along the way, however, Wil must first give up his view of ‘the strong working father’ and then learn to express his love.  This is for him a very long drawn out process, and even at the end of the book we wonder if he, despite all his intentions, has completely broken free of his 1950’s masculine conditioning.

While this is a mainly heterosexual novel, LGBTIQ relations are occasionally touched on.  Wil has a dream which makes him aware of a grain of homosexuality in himself (Ch. 19).  He is not afraid of this, or does not feel bad as a result.  When Wil’s work colleague Mel discovers that his son is gay Wil gives very positive advice about accepting and loving this young man (Ch. 34).  The kind of bigotry that LGBTIQ people face is depicted in a disapproving way (Ch. 39).  The picture is not all naively positive though.  As a boy Wil was pressured by a gay paedophile (Ch. 25) and as an adult he receives too familiar a treatment from a male boss (Ch. 9), although it is not fully clear that this man is gay.  Lesbians receive a brief sympathetic mention, though they are not depicted (Ch. 40).

The often ignored group of the aged are also depicted to a small extent.  Wil’s grandfather, though an absent character, is spoken of positively.  Late in the story Wil’s mother and father are depicted as old people.  In the case of his father we see a positive representation, but in the case of his mother the circumstances are very negative.  Of course people do not become miraculously wise and kind simply because they have aged.

Minorities, another classification of ignored groups, are frequently mentioned and depicted in small ways.  Wil often expresses positive views of people of various races, declaring that colour does not matter to him.  Racial bigotry is also often depicted in a disapproving way.  Junior, a work colleague of Wil’s, receives fullest representation (Ch. 5 & Ch. 7).  He is depicted as an affable man who receives bigotry with very good grace.  Wil himself is of partial American Indian descent and characters of this descent pop up as minor characters.  Some of these incidents dramatize the bigotry they face (Ch. 38).  People of Mexican descent similarly regularly pop up in cameo appearances (Ch. 12 & following), and the bigotry they face is also portrayed and condemned (Ch. 18).  Finally there is one rabid Jew hater depicted, who is certainly disapproved of (Ch. 13).

Wilson’s novel takes an interesting position in the Capitalism / Socialism debate as it takes the middle-ground, third way of Liberalism.  As has been noted, Wil is no friend of interfering government.  Maximum freedom of the individual is really his central point.  Willy is a “liberal, progressive Democrat” (Ch. 32).  None the less he certainly disapproves of rich “fat cats” (Ch. 9), noting for example their “rudeness” (Ch. 9), however, he is continually aware of his family’s “need [… for …] more money” and pursuit of finance is his central occupation.  Partially this is a ‘poor man makes rich’ story and as such is firmly in the ‘great American Capitalist ideal’.  Wil finally owns “a half-million dollar house on a waterway” (Ch. 1).  None the less Willy describes himself as having “leanings of socialism from seeing inequities in society” (Ch. 9), and to be fair equality is very much an important issue to him.  Class struggle and the unethical way the rich gain their wealth are also important issues to him (Ch. 26).  These are certainly Socialist ideas and not surprising from a man of poor background.

Covering a life of seventy two years the novel is partially a social history.  As has been noted, the first two Parts document the narrow views of the 1950’s social system, but from Chapter 11 onwards the plot enters the society of the Counterculture (late 1960s / early 1970s).  “Hippies” (Ch. 11 & following), the anti-war movement (Ch. 12), the psychedelic movement (Ch. 13 & following) and “swingers” (Ch. 21) are all mentioned, and indeed drugs are an important part of the novel.  This ear of freedom, though, does not go completely without critical analysis.  The swingers seem to be simply looking for an excuse to abandon their partner, rather than being really open minded.   Drugs, for all their excitement, propel the user into a narrow world where responsibility is easily lost.  Don, a minor character, for example takes drugs all day while his pregnant girlfriend works (Ch. 19).

Most fiction is about ‘real’ people and so psychology, which aims to find the truth about individuals, is an important tool for an author.  While Wilson’s book is not specifically ‘psychological’, it does touch on many issues related to that field of study. Wil himself may suffer from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (Ch. 1), his brother Darwin is diagnosed as bipolar (Ch. 1 & Ch. 36) and after a bad accident at works Wil suffers from “panic attacks” (Ch. 3).  Wil and his wife Evelyn attend marriage “divorce counselling” (Ch. 22), and Willy attends long after the divorce because he finds it so personally helpful.  “Emptiness” (Ch. 19) as a motivation for drug taking is noted, as is the inevitable “downer” (Ch. 19) that they bring.  These points could have been ‘fleshed-out’ more with a little study of the psychological literature.  The novel is most ‘psychological’ in its observations of the influence of parents and peer groups on long term behaviour.  Both Evelyn and Wil lack parents who can teach them how to communicate with a partner (Ch. 2 & following) and Willy even imitates his mother in her blaming attitude, though this is a quality he hates in her (Ch. 6).  Wil listens to his peer delinquent group because he “wanted to be liked” (Ch. 2).  The effect of both parents and peer group haunt him for the rest of his life and the book documents his attempts to escape this influence.

Wilson’s novel does not really use imagery; however, there is one scene where a pet “boa constrictor” (Ch. 17) eats two mice, who the men at Wil’s work have become very attached to.  This story is aptly ghastly and serves as a good symbol for the whole book.  The natural world is cruel and we are trapped in it, dancing around the aggressor, or looking dubiously at him, a little like mice.  We can use our imagination to make the world better, but we will never really escape the snake.

Many stories, being what they are, have some mythic qualities and this includes Hypocrites In His Midst.  In the first half of the novel Wil is almost possessed by his desire to earn for his family, and around the middle of the book this peaks in the task of building a family home.  This is his proverbial ‘castle’ or ‘ivory tower’ in which his family will live safely and all will be well.  Drawing on the cultural mythology of the Tarot we can see that the card of The Tower Of Destruction very much represents his predicament at this point.  Describing this card Sallie Nichols says that two people “are being thrown from a position of lofty security into one of exposure and confusion” and that a “tongue of lightning has knocked off the golden crown that serves as [… the tower’s …] roof” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980, p. 283).  Wil’s house is not literally destroyed, but a destructive crisis does occur and Wil is thrown into a state of personal confusion, which he must work through in Part IV.  Later speaking of his mental attitude Wil says “I was already building an emotional brick wall to hide behind and protect myself” (Ch. 29).  His desires for financial security, and later his attitudes, are a mental construct, a tower he has built for protection, and yet a tower that constricts him and causes as much harm as good.  Nichols, noting that the title of the card in French “carries the meaning of hospice”, writes, “the two sick souls [ … ] are being liberated from an enforced incarceration rather than cast forth from their true home” (Nichols, p. 285).  The tower depicted in the card has no door.  Both Wil and Evelyn are indeed trapped in a marriage which was meant to solve a bad situation (a pregnancy), but which has brought mostly pain.  Crowley notes of the card that it also carries the meaning of “the destruction of the old-established Aeon by lightning, flames, engines of war” (Aleister Crowley. The Book Of Thoth: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 107).  The events surrounding the building of Wil’s house come in the context of the end of 1950’s values and the beginning of the era initiated by the Counterculture, and the personal meaning of this is certainly acrimony and conflict between Wil and Evelyn.

Throughout the novel Wil notices “my own foolishness” (Ch. 3 and following) and we see many examples of his jokey, uproarious behaviour at parties.  Following from this it can be seen that the Tarot card of The Fool applies to the whole book.  Nichols describes this character as a “wanderer, energetic [… and …] ubiquitous”  (p. 23) and indeed this is Wil ‘to a tee’.  He moves from place to place and job to job, is always rushing to some new project and is in many ways an ‘everyman’.  Nichols notes that “the word ‘fool’ is derived from the Latin follis, meaning, ‘a pair of bellows, a windbag’” (Nichols, p. 28).  Wil frequently notes that he cannot “keep [… his …] mouth shut” (Ch. 2 & following).  Again Nichols notes that the fool’s approach to life includes “the innocence of childhood” (Nichols, p. 26), and as has been said Willy in many ways remains the schoolboy ‘tough’.   Nichols notes that the Fool, possessing secret wisdom, was often advisor to the king, being free to “criticise him and offer challenging suggestions” (Nichols, p. 29).  As has been noted Wil often hands out advice to the governments of his day.  Writing further Nichols notes that the fool’s cap was “originally conceived as a satire on the monk’s cowl, [… but …] nevertheless betrays a serious connection with the spirit” (Nichols, p. 27), and, once again as we have seen, Wil is both critical of the Christian church but personally concerned with ethics and ‘spiritual’ concerns.  In a summing up passage Nichols writes:

“… the Fool’s spontaneous approach to life combines wisdom, madness, and folly.  When he mixes these ingredients in the right proportions the results are miraculous, but when the mixture curdles, everything ends in a sticky mess” (Nichols, p. 24).

This could be written about Wil.  Much more could be said about the relevance of The Fool to Hypocrites In His Midst, but space does not permit.

Wil becomes interested in astrology and this is another source of cultural mythology that has relevance to the novel.  Wil is “Aries” (Ch. 23) and examining this sign reveals much about the book.  Aries begins at the equinox when “light and dark are perfectly balanced” (Nicholas Campion. Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Alhambra House, c2000, p. 21)  and it is interesting to see that Wil is an unusual mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  Many would call him a simple criminal, yet he has an ethic of his own.  He is interested in very earthy, practical solutions to problems, like building a house, yet he has ‘spiritual’ interests.  Aries is characterized by “unlimited power and individuality” (Campion, p. 21) and Wil, as has been noted is very dynamic and quite a character.  Aries is ruled by Mars (Campion, p. 22), the god of war, and Wil is never afraid to fight and indeed finds himself regularly in a battle.  Aries has “drive and ambition” (Campion, p. 23), and Wil, more than most things, wants to get ahead.  Aries can fall into “extremes” (Campion, p. 23), and during his psychedelic phase Wil does just that.  Aries needs to learn the lesson that “other people have feelings and that they may be hurt by our words or actions” (Campion, p. 22) and this is indeed one of the main elements in Wilson’s novel.  Once again, much more could be said about the relevance of this mythological sign, but space does not permit.

At 630 pages Hypocrites In His Midst is not really a quick weekend read.  It really needs several weekends to take in the full extent of Wil’s seventy two years of living.  This book needs to be thought about at least a bit.  The characters are likable, but not exactly “good” people.  The themes of hypocrisy, ethics, success and personal maturation reflect the more individual natures of the characters, certainly giving us something to think about.  The changing role of women is looked at, though some Feminists may raise their eyebrows.  The changing gender role of men is described in detail, though we wonder if Wil has completely freed himself of the 1950s perspective.  LGBTIQ, the aged and racial minorities receive representation and sympathetic treatment.  There is an interesting blend of Capitalism and Socialism, though as a Liberal work the main emphasis is Capitalist.  Mythology can reveal much about the novel, though it does not specifically use imagery.  Wilson’s novel could be read and enjoyed simply as the story of a ‘tough’, but it is really quite a bit more than that.  The exploration of Wil’s seventy two years takes us at least briefly to many different ideas and aspects of life.  I am happy to rate this book as 4.5 stars out of 5.

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