2013 Reread #8
I think I will always love this book. Where else can you find so many intriguing elements mixed into one story that will pretty much always feel relevant? This book focuses on art, religion, history, the power of love, the power of enlightenment and self-awareness, and the ability of inanimate objects to grow consciousness and locomote across the country and across the world. Beyond all the strange characters and philosophizing typical of any Robbins book the heart of this story is what I've always connected with - live in the moment if you can and don't let the past dictate who you are nor the future influence who you will be. Just be you, right now.
It takes a very long time to get to this epiphany and on the journey a lot goes on for our main characters Ellen Cherry Charles and her husband, Boomer Petway. They encounter a wide range of strange characters who are all obsessed in one way or another with the same thing, the Middle East. Some characters believe the world is nearing its end and the third temple should be rebuilt at any cost, some just feel a change on the wind and want to be in Israel, and others want to set an example of how an Arab and Jew can actually get along in the hopes it will lessen the conflicts going on in that part of the world. The funny thing is though, Ellen Cherry and Boomer don't know anything about the Middle East. They come into the story totally ignorant and yet ride this wave because of random associations. And, it's really the two of them that essentially figure everything out Boomer finds the unity between Arabs and Jews through art and Ellen Cherry comes to understand the conflict through the enlightenment brought on by a very salacious dance of the seven veils.
My favorite element of this story is the inanimate objects - a spoon, a dirty sock, a can of beans, a conch shell, and a painted stick journey from the mid-west to New York City then over to Israel. Conch Shell and Painted Stick are artifacts from before the first temple in Israel who have somehow managed to survive. Robbins uses them to fill in the gaps in history since, of course, Can o' Beans is so interested in learning how the Middle Eastern conflict really got started. These characters move without a real concept of time or sense of urgency, but with a level of determination that goes beyond anything a human could muster. Eventually, Conch Shell floats across the ocean from New York to Israel with Can o' Beans riding on her. The patience and determination to accomplish that is just mind-blowing. I love the idea that the pull toward Israel is so strong, even inanimate objects feel it and gravitate toward it. It's a feeling I myself experienced when I was there visiting. There's just something about that part of the world - you feel the origins of life, of your story in the air. After visiting the country I had this residual compulsion for a few months to return and find a way to live there. Being in Israel gave me this sense of calm that I haven't had anywhere else in the world, which is a little odd when you think about it since that part of the world is anything but calm.
Using the Middle East and the long history of conflict there as the backdrop for this story was really a stroke of genius. The conflict has been going on for so long, it's not going to stop any time soon, so this book will always have a relevant element to it. The idea of peace as well is never going out of style, and a tandem theme to any conflict as long-going as this one. It's a way to talk about grudges and peace and learning to let go in a context that everyone can relate to. If you're not directly involved in the conflict or haven't been learning about it your whole life because you're either Arab or Jewish, you've watched the news, you've seen the craziness that goes on over there, you understand.
This is just a long, strange, trip of a book and an amazing read that I still, after letting it sit on my shelf for over a decade, would recommend to anyone looking for something a little off the beaten path of today's popular fiction.