Have you ever broken up amicably with a romantic partner? Have you ever seen that person go on to find happiness with someone else? Have you ever felt equally happy for them, a little jealous and undeniably sad to know they’re gone forever? That’s kind of how I feel about wrapping up my third novel, Joshua and the Chosen People.
Wrapping up a novel is a big enough transition, but Joshua is more than a stand alone book. It’s the final installment of my decade-long trilogy. Together, The Potency!, The Blackguard and Joshua and the Chosen People cover almost a thousand pages, represent more than 10,000 hours of work and the first serious chapter in my intellectual life. Part of me is happy to see them all grown up, out in the world on their own but equally, there’s a bit of an empty spot now, kind of like I’m watching my ex on her wedding day.
So, how are these three novels a trilogy? At first glance, they seem pretty disparate. The Blackguard is about a ruthless young engineer attempting to steal the water rights from an isolated community of racists. The Potency! is about a South Korean salaryman and a New York plumber travelling the world, trying to restore their patriotic honor. Joshua and the Chosen People is about the Hebrew conquest of the Holy Land complete with the walls of Jericho, the sun going backwards and the looming shadow of Moses.
To explain how they connect, I need to go back 22 years to the summer vacation separating the 8th and 9th grades. The teacher for my upcoming English class sent me a letter full of homework. In it he demanded I read four books and prepare two page reports on each. To my adolescent mind, this was an incredibly rude intrusion into the sanctity of summer vacation. I protested this injustice to Mom and Dad, they laughed at me and I resigned myself to the vile practice of vacation homework. I chose three Tom Clancy novels and a book about baseball statistics.
These books seemed to represent my own cultural roots in a satisfying sort of way. Tom Clancy, after all, portrayed proud American heroes standing up to the enemies of freedom in the manly, dignified and understated way people in rural Northern Nevada aspired to. Baseball, likewise, represented a traditional, wholesome oneness with the ancestors that I found very attractive.
This combined with a general atmosphere of proud heritage stuff floating around in the media. Country musicians crooned endlessly about the importance of remembering your roots in almost exactly the same way hip hop artists and the pastors at my church did. I learned the importance of the Pledge of Allegiance, how it bound me spiritually to the rest of America and gave me a “team” full of supportive teammates and common understandings. Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy made me laugh as they gently mocked the redneck culture I had identified with, making it seem like a harmlessly eccentric family. Gatherings of more literal family were filled with aunts and uncles talking about the importance of putting blood ties first, regardless of how annoying you found those people to be. Another team, another place of easy and automatic belonging.
That summer vacation, like all summer vacations, passed too quickly. I walked into my English teacher’s class for the first time and presented my books. He listened to me rattling off key plot points in the Clancy novels and explaining why Chicago White Sox first-baseman Frank Thomas was the most underrated baseball player of the 1990s.
When I finished, there was a short pause while the teacher gathered his thoughts. I expected praise. After all, each of my books had exceeded 200 pages and I’d met the word count, without padding, in all four reports. A part of me even hoped for a pat on the head for embodying the wholesome heritage of rural Northern Nevada. Instead, he told me the truth.
“You seem reasonably intelligent,” he said. “You’ll never amount to much unless you aim higher. Why do you waste your time on this shit?”
At the time, I was pissed in that belligerent, “I’ll show you” sort of way only cocky 14 year-old boys can be. This teacher, disrespecting my heritage, thought I couldn’t handle Shakespeare or John Donne just because I liked Tom Clancy? To hell with him and his snobbery. I’d blast through this supposed “high culture” nonsense and expose him for the stuck up prick he surely was.
And so I tried really hard in that class. I spent more time on English homework than all the rest of my classes combined. I grilled Mom and Dad about what Shakespeare had meant in Othello and went over everything with a microscope hoping to find mistakes in my teacher’s lessons. And in the course of my microscoping and critiquing, I discovered something. My teacher had been right.
Shakespeare was better than Tom Clancy. Like, a lot better. John Donne’s art comprehensively overshadowed the wholesome heritage stuff I’d heard in hip hop songs and in Larry the Cable Guy comedy skits. And it wasn’t simply a matter of genre.
I discovered that these powerful artists, whether writing in the western genre like Cormac McCarthy, the short story genre like Lu Xun or the romance genre like Jane Austen – they shared a lot more with each other than the simple, down-homey heritage stuff I’d been reading during summer vacation. The tribe of deep thinkers and great artists, the tribe of Homer and Rumi and Lady Murasaki and people who overcame the limitations of their heritages; this was the tribe I needed to join if, as my teacher had said, I wanted to amount to anything.
And yet the message that you should represent your roots, remember where you’ve come from, remain loyal to the ‘hood and define yourself through unchosen race/gender/identity, that stuff never went away in the broader culture. It got bigger, stronger and blobbier, like a Resident Evil villain going into its third phase.
And so I wrote the Blackguard. I wanted my villagers, depending on their racial heritage, to lose their easy, automatic sense of purpose and belonging. I wanted to see how many were too weak to make their own identities and observe how they failed. I wanted to find out which ones saw the end of heritage as the beginning of opportunity. I wanted to experience the feelings of characters caught somewhere in the middle and explore what it meant to be metaphysically adrift. The Blackguard was, thus, about a group of people who partially overcome heritage.
Then I wrote The Potency!. I wanted to look into the patriotic heritage that became so powerful after 9-11. I wanted to explore the shallow, superficial pride that so often hides beneath showy patriotism and demonstrate how, through pain and introspection, a character can rebuild his identity on stronger foundations like duty, love and sacrifice. The Potency! was, thus, about characters truly overcoming heritage and becoming heroic.
Finally, I completed Joshua and the Chosen People. Joshua was, in my research, consistently portrayed in one of two extremely opposed ways. In the first portrayal, Joshua stood tall against a world of unimaginable evil and, through piety and courage, delivered the tribe chosen by God to a homeland entirely their own. Such a Joshua is a paragon of wisdom, kindness and strength, a hero surpassed only by Moses.
In the second portrayal, Joshua was a bloody tyrant. He emerged from the desert and descended on the Canaanites in a fury of genocide and sadism. This Joshua relished the suffering of pagans, murdered women and children (and even livestock) without mercy and set up Israel as a sort of proto-fascist theocracy.
Going back to what I’d learned about heritage, the lessons that English teacher drummed into my head in 9th grade, I wondered if perhaps both stories weren’t equally true. What if the price of a chosen people, the cost of heritage, is either your honesty or your humanity. What if Joshua, embracing the powerful heritage of God’s people, had been forced by his personal integrity to destroy the pagans?
And so that’s what I chose to portray. Joshua wants to be merciful, wants to embody the justice and high morality of Mosaic Law but, doing so, cannot help but dilute the purity of his heritage. After all, you cannot coexist with the other unless you are comfortable with his foreign ways rubbing off on you.
Seeing this dilution, Joshua must decide if he values his moral values enough to surrender Israel’s mantle as Chosen People or, alternately, if he cares for the mantle enough to leave behind his humanity. I’m not sure anyone in a powerful position can avoid this dilemma, whether in ancient Israel or modern Myanmar.
As you can hopefully see, this was a big intellectual project. It was my first serious attempt to embrace a life of the mind and I am very proud of the results – warts and all. But now it’s finished. I need to move to a new intellectual project, a new series, a new obsession to think through, to feel as deeply as possible. Farewell, Blackguard, Potency and Joshua, it’s been real.
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