David James Duncan is one of my heroes, both for being a wonderful writer from the Pacific Northwest, and for saying a lot of the things I think way better than I could ever say them. He is a preacher of rivers, which description I think conveys both the lovely things about him and the sometimes irritating things about him. God Laughs Plays is a collection of talks he has given and articles he has written or for which he was interviewed. You can probably gather the basic idea from the title. Duncan very accurately describes my most simple thoughts about him as a writer, when he talks about how people react to the moment in his book The River Why, when the protagonist, Gus, has a mystical spiritual experience:"Reader reactions to this climax have been neatly divided. Those who have experience similar detonations have sometimes been so moved by the scene that their eyes filled as they thanked me for writing it - and those who've experienced no such detonation have asked why I ruined a dang good fishin' yarn with woowoo. I admire both reactions. Both are constitutionally correct. Both are perfectly honest. What more should a writer want from a reader?"
I could not agree more with both sentiments. Duncan is one of the best of the great "fishin' yarn" writers (in which group I include Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville), but is also a metaphysical preacher and spiritual guru, in the way that he should be, as a reader and Northwestern lover of the wonderful rivers and forests. Sometimes he can get a little too flowery in his metaphysical talk for my taste. It's the same problem I have with the Madeline L'Engle books after A Wrinkle in Time. I'm willing to believe the universe has all this grand organization, but it gets to me when people are too impressed by it, but not too impressed to talk about it. I'm sure everyone experiences that kind of awe in one way or another, but it doesn't translate well into words. It sounds desperate, or something. Also, sometimes Duncan uses words like "woowoo" and "dang good fishin'", which . . . umm . . . I don't like.
There are many transcendent moments in all of his writing, however, and he does have the ability to set a story up as spiritually over the top, when suddenly he becomes very self-aware and turns it into an appropriately hilarious joke. I think that is one of the greatest abilities writers can have - Shakespearean in a lot of ways. It seems relevant to quote, for your reading enjoyment, the story that inspired the title God Laughs and Plays
, which took place when Duncan was in college at the beginning of the Vietnam War (In this type of book, I don't really feel like there is anything to give away in terms of a plot, but if you truly wish to read the book and want it to be entirely a surprise, I'll throw in this spoiler warning for you: *SPOILER!!* - skip the italicized letters, or else. Also, there are enough other brilliant stories in here that I don't think quoting this one will make this review like the preview for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, where the summary makes the actual thing a disappointment):While waiting at the food stamp office one day, I happened to open my new used Eckhart book to a sermon titled "God Laughs and Plays". I don't recall what scripture the Meister quoted in defense of this truth. And I refuse to look it up. There's too much dead text and too little living intuition in American spirituality these days! "God Laughs and Plays..." The title alone hooked me. I'd read enough Eckhart to know he was wiser than any Christian I'd met, and far wiser than me. I'd read enough to feel the glowering Republican "God" of fundamentalism losing his last shreds of power over me in the face of the unfathomable, loving mystery that is Eckhart's "unknown God". I'd read enough to know I trusted this sage with my mind and heart. And there in the food stamp office, the man I'd come to trust informed me that "God laughs and plays."
"The joy of all saints and angels together . . . amounts to as little as a bean when compared to the joy of God at play."
. . . Why did I believe these crazy words? I don't know. Why did my life begin to morph because of these words? I don't know. Given the grim death of my brother, the threat of the draft, threat of the war, plus my lifelong religious skepticism, the idea of a God who laughed and played seems incredibly unlikely to have pierced me. Yet the instant Eckhart declared it, things started to change.
The food stamp office, for instance. How ridiculous it began to look! So self important. So institutional. So deliberately depressing. . . The place seemed conspiratorially designed by some Nazi Martha Stewart out to create oceans of ambient guilt in poor people.
The rules, too, began to seem ridiculous. That the ailing, half-wrecked, unhirable folks who dragged themselves in here had to lie every visit, as I did, saying we'd been out hunting jobs, in order to collect our stamps! Not only did it make us feel guilty, it taught us that lying is necessary in order to survive.
In short: the place suddenly struck me as so concertedly Kafkaesque, and the news that God laughs and plays was so explosively non-Kafka, that I began to grin at the whole clumsily officious arrangement. . .
As soon as I started to think this, I too started to feel joy. And in its presence, I found I could no longer do what I was doing. The grubby plastic chair beneath my ass suddenly struck me as hilarious. Then so did the buzz of the tube-lights, the guilt-inducing rules, the shame-inducing stamps. Then so did my fear of going to Vietnam. If God laughed and played, I could laughingly refuse to serve in 'Nam! If God laughed and played, it was ridiculous of me to be eking out an American half-life according to so many tiny-minded miserable little rules. I stood up. I snapped Eckhart's sermons shut. "God laughs and plays," I told the food stamp office, "and I'm outta here!" And I never went back again.
That's a crazy-sounding story, I realize, and it leaves what we tend to call "reality" out. So let me say how I dealt, in nuts and bolts, with my loss of government nutrition assistance. . . "
Duncan is very willing to acknowledge his own silliness, but still dive right into it. What better compliment could I give an author?
This book was published in 2006, and I should have been more prepared for the repeated references to Bush Jr. than I was. While I agreed with everything Duncan said on that topic, it was tedious to me to read about that presidency, when so much of me wants to never read of it on my free time again *sigh*. To give you an idea of Duncan's excellent sentiments along those lines, this is a little snippet from an interview Duncan includes. He is discussing his relationship with his family, who it seems were involved in rather oppressive Seventh Day Adventism, and he says, "And my mother remains one of my closest friends, and she has never answered an Altar Call in her life because, in her own words, 'I'm already a Christian, and that preacher has no right to try and shame me!' And in her view the presidency of G.W. Bush is 'one big Altar Call"
(p. 176). Yep!
Duncan came to speak to a small group of people at the University of Oregon School of Law when I worked there and was very inspiring about getting rid of useless dams and saving communities from the destruction of gold mining. These are things we should do. He has this really meek, but persuasive, air about him of being some kind of cross between Louis L'Amour, Gandhi, and Gloria Steinem. I like it. He writes boy stories that I can get into. This was more of a fan book than a stand-alone work, but it still had much of the beauty and thoughtfulness of his fiction. I would think that for people who prefer nonfiction (though, as Duncan smartly points out in one of his essays in this book, what is that really?) this would be a better read than The River Why, but nothing of his that I've read quite compares to The Brothers K.