Saturday, May 14, 2005

Mind and Media Review / The Jordan Tracks

Processing Plant
The Jordan Tracks, a novel by Steven W. Wise, 2005 Authorhouse
Reviewed by Daniel Lacey

The year is 1936, and twelve year old Ernie Bates accidentally kills his father with a kitchen knife while trying to protect his mother from a violent dinnertime beating. Fast forward to 1968, and unsaved Ernie has the position of ‘killer’ in a turkey processing plant, methodically slitting the throats of thousand of doomed birds a day. Here we join the stoic suffering of Ernie, a big quiet man who lives a small town life with small town friends and a very patient and prayerful Christian wife with whom he counts the days until the imminent return of their only and beloved son Aaron from service in Vietnam.

This a novel about process; how God processes souls and how people contribute to the operation of His earthly plant, which is humankind. The title is an allusion to the Biblical Jordan, the ‘tracks’ is the journey traveled, and also the train tracks which run beside both the processing plant and the town cemetery. The ‘tracks’ are also the lives of the varied characters of the novel, who’s intersecting lives are portrayed by the author with a lively detailing which informs us exactly as to their progress on their various journeys towards God. It speaks well to Mr. Wise's attitude as a Baptist deacon that he portrays almost all of his characters on the positive track, although some with spiritual travels sidetracked or achingly slowed, and it is to the author’s greatest credit that he sets his positivism upon a sometimes very dark canvas, where the floor of the turkey plant is chalked red with blood and True Evil whispers thoughts of suicide to the town's most despondent citizen through his similarly beloved cottonwoods.

There is a lot of waiting in this novel (of people, time and spiritual realization) and much loving and poetic description. We wait for the return of son Aaron alongside father Ernie and mother Christa, with plant co-workers Harley and colorful turkey gripper Fudd, but we wait too long; the novel comes to a crawl one third of the way through, and then there is a great surprise and very good momentum to the end. Like all worthwhile tales the characters do not arrive at their expected destinations.

Spiritually minded readers will revel in Mr. Wise’s very realistic portrayal of small town spiritual life and his subtle though profound comparisons of that life to the observational power of the simplest and most globally insignificant Christian mind. The author with great fondness does both justice. The fact that an invisible spiritual wellspring supplies Harley with his everyday heroics would be enough to cause a Cheever or an Updike to consider his character nonsensical, or similarly to consider the delightful transformation of Fudd , who’s gregariousness and natural earthliness would already be the envy of any secular mind, unnecessary, if not outright flawed. That’s why secular readers may puzzle over the very purpose of this novel in the same way Touched By An Angel aficionados may wrestle with Pynchon; the nits and grits of personal salvation compromising the most uninteresting and alien of worldviews unless it culminates in a very showy massacre and thereby negates itself. This is the same gap philosophers encounter when they arrive at the border of what they refer to as ‘special revelation.’ They can travel so far into that land, and, rejecting it’s peculiar compass, no further.

Mr. Wise, always the deacon, seems to keep this anti-audience in mind, peppering his extremely patient and largely dialogue based storytelling with beautiful descriptions meant to illuminate the world of the skeptic who doesn't believe God is engaged in a personal battle for the soul of the commonest man. He does this best through allusions regarding the natural world, the current vicinity we all share. His most particular observations, in themselves isolated reflections of the encouraging personal salvation theme of The Jordan Tracks, reveal much about God the Forman’s supernatural methodology, as in this passage during one of Ernie‘s darkest travails-

‘Christa walked to the kitchen sink, looked out the window past the long shadowy form of her husband, and then skyward. Only tattered remnants of clouds floated past the frosty brilliance of the half moon as it cast a pale glow over the landscape. For Christa, the moon was the crown jewel of the heavens, not the mighty sun. The sun could not be viewed directly, for it’s power was too great for human eyes to behold. But the moon offered a brilliance which could light a path or illuminate a landscape, yet an earthbound admirer could look directly at it without being blinded. The moon took just enough light from the great sun and softened it and beamed it earthwards, so that frail humans could accept it and be one with it. The moon was like Christ, the woman believed-an intercessor for mankind to an almighty God who could not be directly beheld.’

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