Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: The Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode

The Wedding of Sarah and Tobias by Jan Steen, 1660
Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2011

It's about: At the end of the book, the author explains, "this novel is a retelling of the ancient Jewish tale of Tobias and Sarah set in the world of my grandparents, who met and married in Texas during the Great Depression." Mind you, I didn't read that until the end. So I read the story of Tobias, a hormonal, 19-year-old Depression era boy, whose father is a self-righteous Baptist preacher but gets blinded by a bird pooping in his eyes (seriously). Tobias must journey from his home in Michigan to his uncle's ranch in Texas, where his father had buried money years before, to save his parents from poverty. On the way, Tobias rebels against his strict, pious upbringing and gets into all sorts of trouble. Luckily, he makes friends with a hook-handed black hobo, Craw, who shows him the ropes of being a bum, looks out for him, and even teaches him a thing or two. And boy, does Tobias need it -- especially when he meets the lovely farm hand, Sarah.

I thought: The book is entertaining enough. It helps to be familiar with the tale of Tobias, from the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha, because before I knew it was based on that, I did more than a little eyebrow raising at the blinded by bird crap thing, and the demon Indian man who curses any man who loves Sarah, and the magical powers of catfish. Understanding the premise -- morphing the ancient Biblical story with the author's grandparents' love story -- makes the whole thing seem more harmless and less certifiably crazy.

In fact, reading it as a myth makes me more willing to overlook other shortcomings of the novel as well. Like the rather shallow characterization. Other than Tobias's spiritual journey -- rejecting his father's teachings only to learn bit by bit what he really believes in -- the other transformations in the book are not very fully developed. (spoiler alert) Like his father's -- Tobias leaves for a few weeks, and when he comes back, his father has had a total change of heart. Read as a novel, this is highly unlikely and rather annoying. As a take on a Bible story, however, well, that just happens all the time in scripture, doesn't it? (end spoiler)

"Tobias with the Angel Raphael"
by Pietro Perugino, 1496
Tobias is a likable and pretty believable character. As a young man at the height of his libido, he has a typical boy's dirty mind ("What did I want out of life? Only one thing, really. To make love to a beautiful girl before the Rapture."), but at the same time, he has a very charming sincerity. As a matter of fact, he reminded me a bit of Holden Caulfield in several parts. Like when he accidentally ends up at a whorehouse and just tries to make small talk with the prostitute, realizing that he can have sex like he's always wanted, but that he'd rather get a nice house and raise chickens with her ("Raising chickens with the girl sounded more appealing than screwing her --? What kind of fool notion was that? I knew less about chickens than I did about sex, if such a thing was possible.")

Craw is also a fun character. He represents the guardian angel in disguise in the Bible story of Tobias, and he certainly provides spiritual guidance, but in his own hilarious, quirky way. And the book can be rather innocently funny -- it's certainly irreverent but not mean-spirited.

Verdict: In-between; this was a pretty fun, easy read but not necessarily a book that gets a ringing endorsement.

Reading Recommendations: For Kindle owners and Amazon prime members, this is one of the free books you can rent out every month.

Warnings: This is told from the perspective of a teenage boy, so yeah, there's a lot in here about breasts and sex and swearing -- but all in good fun.

Favorite excerpts:
"Remember this, my boy. The two greatest men who ever lived -- Jesus and Socrates -- were both hoboes." (Craw)

"'The problem with a lot of church people,' Craw said, 'is that they're trying to be holier than Jesus.'"

"I was obsessed with breasts, but I had no idea why. I still am, and still don't. What are they, anyway? Built-in baby bottles. So why are they so attractive? Is it their roundness and softness? If women had only one breast and several nipples, like a goat, would breasts lose their charm? If women had udders on their bellies that swayed as they walked, would men still watch and whistle?"

What I'm reading next: Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor