4 out of 4 stars
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Sitting down to read St. Anthony’s Fire by Garry Harper is like falling into a crazy, drug-induced dream. We find ourselves in The City, following the mishaps of an unlucky trio of friends who each must contend with the not-so-usual hassles of city life. Reliable and pensive Rabelais is grappling with an existential question. Irritable, brash Orrin is trying to rectify a clerical error. Only the shrewd, ironic John is living the American dream: “doing as little work as possible with no repercussions.”
Then things took a turn for the absurd. Rabelais’s quest for The Answer unwittingly sparked the genesis of a new religion, Rabelaism, along with a rabid band of followers who called themselves the Rabelites. Orin, who had to drop one ‘R’ from his name in a silly case of mistaken identity, was forced to run for mayor, swept up by a tide of blind, overzealous supporters. And John? Well, let’s just say his life went up in flames.
In St. Anthony’s Fire, Harper turns a satirical eye on religion, politics, the business world, corporate life, sociology, psychology, and the very pulse of the society that we live in. The City could be anywhere, and its flock of sometimes naïve, often mindless denizens could just as well be us. Harper deftly steers his protagonists into a series of strange, hilarious calamities, all the while juggling their interactions with a compelling cast of supporting characters. We meet a doe-eyed bachelorette dreaming of true love, a poor rich girl forced by her parents to attend — gasp! — art school, a press relations officer who single-handedly redefined the concept of ‘employee commitment,’ ardent activists and cultists, and lots and lots of the idiotic voting public.
Harper sets in motion a chain of events so ridiculous, so inanely impossible, that it was difficult to keep a straight face when confronted with the situations themselves, with the characters’ reactions, and with the personal and societal fallouts. At one point, it seemed to me like the characters lacked agency and that the entire point of the book was to demonstrate just how much the individual is a slave to the whims of the many. Events didn’t strictly follow chronology, and there were several disparate plot elements that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. Towards the middle, my greatest worry was that I’d emerge out of the madness of it all with no clear conclusion or resolution and no substantial takeaway other than several moments of gut-busting laughter. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, I could walk away from the book entertained.
However, the book description did warn, “If reading it leaves you feeling frustrated and miserable, with a worse outlook on life and the world around you, then it has done its job.” And indeed, I stopped laughing. There was a moment when it all became too real, that sobering moment when the book was no longer a book but a mirror of the world I live in. Yes, this is a darkly comedic work of fiction that seems to lampoon the entire notion of society, of humanity, but it does so within the confines of a compelling story. It’s not an easy read, and Harper (perhaps deliberately) made it even more challenging to absorb. Harper’s prose is articulate but far from simple. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met the words pococurantism, hebetudinous, farouche, prosopons, and solipsistic until my immersion in St. Anthony’s Fire. I couldn’t decide if the text was pretentious or if Harper was being ironic with his choice of words. Regardless, the constant need to check the dictionary is the only deterrent I could see for readers not to enjoy this work.
I rate St. Anthony’s Fire a well-deserved 4 out of 4 stars. The book is professionally edited and presented, something that would make a great gift for the budding philosopher or any keen-eyed academic. It might not lend itself so well to the casual reader, but give it time, like I did, and it might just grow on you, too. Hilariously absurd and yet absurdly true, St. Anthony’s Fire is a timely book for these turbulent times.
St. Anthony's Fire
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