Thanks to David Athey for sending me a review copy of his book, Danny Gospel.
In terms of genre, Danny Gospel is not a novel, but a comic romance, a commedia. The romances that come to mind when I read this are Confederacy of Dunces (Toole), Wise Blood (O'Connor), The Last Gentleman (Percy), Invisible Man (Ellison), and Song of Solomon (Morrison). In fact, the story has a couple of hat tips in the direction of Wise Blood. I like romances, but my wife Karen doesn't, and she can smell them a good ways off. Romances are episodic and multi-climactic, and comic romances have a bit of coarseness: e.g. Dante's flatterers swimming in a river of shit. In general, romances end with marriages and reunions and reconciliations (think of Charles Dickens). Novels, on the other hand, mainly build toward a big climax at the end, even if they have a minor climax or two early on. Novels typically end with a dramatic resolution of the main conflict — for better or worse. I suspect the more negative reviews that this heartbreaking book have received are due in one way or another to the reader's unfamiliarity with commedia, or at least a preference for novels rather than commedias.
Danny Gospel is one of the last survivors of the Gospel Family, a family musical group. He lives in Iowa in a trailer park, having lost everyone and everything except his brother. His ex-fiance left him to return to her birthplace in New York. She had called him every year, but didn't this year. One day, Danny receives a kiss from a woman in white who disappears, setting Danny on a quest to find her again. Along the way, Danny grapples with his past and with the beautiful, haunted world.
Although I was a bit skeptical, this book won me over quickly, causing me to care about Danny and the other characters and investing myself in their struggles. I read earnestly, finishing the book in three days on September 11th, and then reading it again right away. The story is well constructed with beautiful description, good pacing, and a coherent plot. For those who may be confused about the ending, I recommend reading Chapter One again. Everything should fall right into place.
I would also note: a novel about a "holy fool," a Dan Quixote, necessarily presents a problematic understanding of faith, which doesn't do justice to the "grandeur of reason." The task of a reviewer, however, is to evaluate how well a book accomplishes its aim, and not to argue that a different story should have been written. I'm saving the argument for next week.