Social commentary is perilous. Since those who engage in it usually have an axe to grind, they too easily succumb to bitterly cynical sarcasm, or pitifully ridiculous absurdity. On occasion an angry social critic will get it right and inspire generations with profound observations of civilization’s problems – regardless whether his or her prescriptions for fixing those problems have any chance of working out as intended. But for the most part, this kind of social commentary serves only to make people more angry without really addressing the root problem.
The key to successful social commentary is to turn it into fiction. That way the cynicism, ridicule, and anger get channeled into something constructive and lasting. If done properly, the targets of the most bitter epithets will be laughing or crying so hard that they will never know they have been lampooned. That is why such classics as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, and Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan remain with us today.
Adam Berkowitz has made a great start at entering such august company thanks to his first novel, The Hope Merchant. Usually a novel introduces the protagonist in the first few pages and follows him or her closely to the end. Berkowitz does that, but in a delightfully twisted way. The Hope Merchant is Theo S. Meyer, someone we would not expect at first to be the center of attention in a literary work. He is the awkward young teenager on his parents’ dairy farm; the one no one notices, but who seems to come up with just the right word at the right time to address something painful – even a pain that reaches far down into the soul.
The reason we take no immediate notice of Theo is because our focus is on one of his first customers: an over-aggressive young corporate attorney named Jack. An odd series of events brings Jack to sojourn on the Meyer farm, and there he is transformed by Theo’s magic. Well, perhaps we could call it magic. We never really know how Theo and Big Brad, the Inuit farm hand who trained him in the ways of native medicine, bend events to create precisely the situations required to help people help themselves, but that is the pattern throughout the book.
That pattern by which the novel progresses is another of the maddeningly satisfying components of The Hope Merchant. Perhaps the best way to describe the book is by saying that it follows Theo’s career from his teenage years to extreme old age. Oddly enough, we do not follow Theo himself; we see him grow and mature through the people he helps. Jack the attorney, Lance the gas station owner, Hannah the runaway, Liza the publishing executive, and Lilly the accountant all find hope through Theo’s ministrations, and it is through their stories that we discern his story. Each of them are victims of society in one way or another, caught in webs of ambition, self-pity, greed, loneliness, disease, addiction, and other demons of post-modern civilization which drive otherwise nice, decent people to be utter wretches.
Theo finds ways to help them all, one at a time. The magic he employs (we never really know if he controls its application in any given situation or just follows it where it leads) is only a tool; it is neither the end in itself, nor even the means to an end. Ultimately Theo’s customers pull themselves out of their own hopelessness. It is a simple process. All it takes is creating the conditions by which they admit their hopelessness, and then begin to see that there is a way out. It happens again and again, bringing laughter and tears to the reader, who by the middle of the book knows what to expect.
And that is where Theo works more magic, or rather Berkowitz works his magic through Theo. The plot darkens as Theo takes a vacation in a hospital for the mentally unstable. There we learn the downside of his career. Ironically, it is in the high degree of hopelessness that accompanies his work. Part of that is volume; there is far too much hurt in the world to fix it all. Then there are the complications, the moral dilemmas, and the agonizing situations in which the best hope one can have is for an end to suffering. In this chapter we find the most candid examination of spiritual matters. The book is full of spirituality, but like everything else in The Hope Merchant, it is understated and subtle. Here it takes center stage, wrestling with the most uncomfortable question of all: how can a good God permit such widespread and intense human suffering? How Berkowitz answers that question is another of the hauntingly satisfying aspects of the book – not because it is a pleasant answer, but because it is honest. Could we ask for anything more?
All things must end, and so does The Hope Merchant. Berkowitz concludes Theo’s career with a series of chapters on his last customer, a young man named Ben who is out of step with his society. This is where we find the author’s most outrageous use of hyperbole. The society he describes is one given entirely to living for the moment. More accurately, it is a society not actually living, but existing to the fullest extent possible for the purpose of fulfilling every pleasure. It reminds one of the warped utopia of William F. Nolan’s Logan’s Run, where the goal is to live fast because everyone is certain to die young. Except Ben, of course, which is why Theo singles him out for special attention. And that attention is what brings the novel to a satisfying close. Satisfying, that is, in the sense that even though there is no hope of preventing society from killing itself, there is hope that someone will be there to pick up the pieces.
When the journey is done, we realize what a masterful author we have encountered in Adam Berkowitz. For all its magical, outlandish elements, The Hope Merchant is very real and very human. Berkowitz artfully weaves his language, constructing characters we recognize because we see them every day, either on the street or in the mirror. There is ugliness in them, to be sure, but even in the ugly parts there is hope. In the world Berkowitz has created, redemption is just one choice away. And that is the most satisfying part of all.