My friend Don Merritt has often criticized me for my faith in Christ. He imagines I’m smart and questions how a smart person could possibly believe in such nonsense. I have tried to explain that all us humans encounter different experience, which can lead to different views of reality. He argues that no experience should lead anyone sensible to belief in the ridiculous.
Maybe he’s right. Anyway, the longer I live, the less I care for arguing. But in case some readers or descendants of mine wonder about the cause of my ridiculous beliefs, I’ll give some details about how a book pointed me on the road I have taken ever since, for better or worse.
First came a whole lot of tragedy. Within a couple years, my dad died, then my mom fell sick with spinal meningitis and got stuck in a hospital isolation ward for some months. I was an only child, on my own at sixteen. My friend Eric moved in to keep me company. I’m pretty sure we became closer than most brothers.
Soon after my mom came home, Eric began receiving dark premonitions. Then he got expelled from school for a minor offense, which you could find depicted in Reading Brother Lawrence. About a month afterward, a Volkswagen driven by a careless friend of ours careened off a mountain road.
Eric died in February of our senior year. In June, I went to work as a restaurant’s pot washer. Because I worked a split shift, ten to two and six to ten, six days a week, I hadn’t much time to devote to my girlfriend Liz. And on my night off I sometimes preferred a party or a dance to hanging out alone with her. One of those nights, she declined to go with me and I left the dance with Serena whom I didn’t know sat next to Liz in summer school.
Girls talk. Liz decided I was a creep. I probably was. In any case, I felt mighty guilty. Not just about my disloyalty to Liz. Also about my dad’s death, the rude way I sometimes treated my mom, about Eric having gone on a road trip I backed out of, and simply about my inability to be the kind of person I admired. Like St. Paul, I grieved that I didn’t practice what I wanted to do, but instead often did what I hated.
That summer, Serena flew out of a convertible and died (no seatbelt), and around that time I picked up a copy of Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.
Lots of readers consider the book difficult. I suspect they only shy away because Russian nicknames can get confusing. The basic storyline is rather simple. A university student falls for a currently fashionable idea that superior people have the right to break any law in order to achieve goals that will benefit humanity. He suffers severe depression because of his poverty and other factors, and in this state decides to knock off an evil pawnbroker, steal her money, and use it for good causes.
The brilliance of the novel resides in the characters, especially with the readers’ access into the mind of a fiercely disturbed man, and even into the perspective of a reprobate drunkard who’s daughter is both a prostitute and an archetype of purity and heroism. Marmeledov, the drunken father, tells Raskolnikov, the murderer, “He will come in that day and He will ask: ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…. I have forgiven thee once…. Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much….’ And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it… I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’
I copied a part of that scene onto the back of a business card and kept the card in my wallet for years.
I’m hardly a fast reader and no book ever written could keep me up all night. But Crime and Punishment — 211, 561 words (I looked it up) — I read in a few days, shut in my bedroom between pot washing shifts, refusing to speak to my mom or to eat unless she graciously brought me a sandwich and lemonade,
Crime and Punishment convinced me to write novels. I have finished about twenty. Half of them belong to the Tom Hickey series, which is more about crime than punishment. In most of the others, I tackle issues of guilt and how it punishes both the truly guilty and those who erroneously take on guilt, as most of us humans do.
My latest, Newport Ave, is about both crime and punishment.
Some of Ken’s favorites are early mornings, the desert in spring, kind and honest people, baseball and other sports played by those who don’t take themselves too seriously, most kids, and films he and his Zoe can enjoy together.
He reads classic novels, philosophy, theology, and all sorts of mysteries. On his blog, he offers some
hard truths and encouragement about living as a writer.
He has long been the author of novels, stories, articles, poems, and essays. Lots of honors have come his way, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; Poets, Essayists and Novelist’s Ernest Hemingway Award; Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel and Shamus Best Novel; and several San Diego and Los Angeles Book Awards.
Though he advocates beer in a video, he actually prefers Scotch.
Excerpt from Newport Avenue:
GREG MAIRS WAS a high school senior when his girlfriend called with the news. The next day, his amigo James said, “Come on, Romeo, make up your mind.”
The boys were carrying longboards on their shoulders down Newport Avenue toward the pier.
“Crap,” Greg said.
“Jesus, man, do you love her or don’t you?”
Greg shifted the board from his right to left shoulder. “Sure, I guess. I mean, she’s a babe, a lot of laughs, we have a good time.”
Then James stopped cold, staring downhill at the Silva brothers. Tony stood in the middle with legs spread, his stance and shoulders as wide as the sidewalk. Junior was stationed in the gutter. Leaning against the schoolyard’s chain link fence was Marco, the oldest and boss of the family since their papa got gaffed.
“No sweat,” Greg said. “They just want to talk.”
James harbored no such illusion. He was plenty enough acquainted with Portuguese families who made up the Point Loma tuna cartel to know they were big on honor. Knock up the little sister, you’re liable to die.
Junior made the first move. He aimed a forefinger at James. “Scram, Dobchek. This ain’t about you.”
“Yeah, then what’s the deal?”
“Just get lost, Whiz.”
Before James could decide how best to give his amigo a getaway op, whether to take a swipe with his board or to drop it and lead with his fists, Greg passed him by.
Greg was approaching Junior, their classmate through whom he met Lonnie Silva, when Tony blindsided him with a sharp jab to Greg’s cheekbone.
When Greg’s board hit the pavement, the fin cracked. As if he prized the board more than life, he bent and began to flip it over.
Tony launched a kick that caught Greg in the ribs and landed him on the board. Now Marco joined in, blasting James’ amigo in the face and skull, in the side and belly and neck with his pointed toe Mexican shoes.
While his brothers kicked and stomped and used their fists to prevent Greg from rising, Junior hopped onto the sidewalk and held up his hands, warning James to stay put.
But James was no observer, not since the incident that sent his dad to prison. The pulse in his head throbbed. All his faculties felt powered by hot blood. And his mind had split in two. Half stayed behind. The rest flashed to six blocks down Newport Avenue and three years back when a man came running into Virgil’s grocery yelling threats while James stocked shelves and his sister Olivia was sweeping.
But even with part of a brain and stoked with adrenaline, he was smart enough to calculate the odds of a schoolboy taking on three tuna fishermen. He spun around looking for help. All he saw was a weapon in the schoolyard, propped against the backstop a few yards inside the gate.