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.
There was a time I wrestled with God. The wrestling match began in my teenage years, when I detected certain inconsistencies in the instruction handed down from my elders. From my Southern Baptist church and family I learned that God had given free will to every human being, and that we could choose whether to follow Him or not. From my Presbyterian school I learned that God had foreordained everything, and that a process called predestination somehow influenced the choices we make. This was not the only inconsistency encountered in my Christian upbringing; there were and still are many. The question of free will and predestination, however, shaped the context of my wrestling with God from the beginning. I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of my elders, nor had I reason to question the truth of what they taught me. What I questioned was how these seemingly incompatible truths fit together. I still do not have the answer, but a very wise man helped me find a way through the dilemma. He was my Bible teacher. One day in class someone asked him to explain which was correct, free will or predestination. He may have been the only person in the school qualified to answer that question. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and had had ample opportunity to consider the subject as he taught Bible in our Presbyterian academy. His answer was surprisingly Hebraic, both imminently satisfying and frightfully frustrating: he asked us if both concepts were present in the Bible. When we said yes, he said, “Then they both must be true.” And that was the end of the matter.
And the beginning.