Last Updated on Friday, 15 July 2011 22:44 Written by Jeffrey Thomas Friday, 15 July 2011 15:56
-- From Dimiter.
It might seem unlikely that a person like myself, so openly critical of religion in my own writing, should have as his favorite horror novel The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, or that the explicitly Catholic Blatty should be a favorite author. Yes, as a teen I would pray repeatedly throughout the day, but I now consider that more of an obsessive compulsive neurosis -- though one might argue that much religious behavior is neurotic. And yet even to an agnostic like myself, Blatty’s major novels -- The Exorcist, its pseudo-sequel Legion, The Ninth Configuration, and most recently Dimiter -- are profoundly moving and thought-provoking meditations on the human quest for meaning both personal and cosmic, and faith in the power of good.
Unlike the insurmountably frightening The Exorcist and Legion, Dimiter is not a horror novel, though to call it a thriller is far too simplistic. It does concern the supernatural -- if only, the influence of a deity in the lives of humans -- and some of its mysterious events have a decidedly creepy feel, such as a clown visiting the children’s ward of a hospital at three in the morning (and the title character is so uncannily, eerily gifted, he seems almost to be an alien being, as one character even suggests). Can we call it a theological mystery, then, for lack of a clear genre to tap the peg into?
The plot revolves around a mysterious CIA operative, Paul Dimiter, the so-called “Agent from Hell" -- an elusive enigma built up to great effect throughout. At the start of the novel, Dimiter is horribly tortured after being caught during a mission in the Albania of 1973. Shift to Jerusalem, and an increasingly large cast of beguiling characters -- including most notably, tormented police investigator Peter Meral -- taking part in an increasingly Byzantine plot involving a series of bizarre deaths, all of which ultimately point to murder. Blatty tightens the strings and pulls these characters and killings together with a master’s confidence. I am a habitually slow reader, yet I read the second half of Dimiter in a single day; unheard of for me. It is not only fast-paced, but impeccably plotted, seemingly with a new mystery on every page. That nearly all the book’s killings take place offstage only enhances the sense of mystery. And as I mentioned, this book might most readily be considered a mystery, but as such, as much an investigation into matters of the spirit as crimes against the flesh.
As always, Blatty makes his characters, and his settings, live. His dialogue is as witty as ever. Even in his eighties, his brilliance has lost no luster. Like the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith, this is popular fiction taken to the level of literature. Perhaps like no one else’s, his novels satisfy everything this reader could ask for in a work of fiction.
Occasionally characters will slip into the role of ventriloquist’s dummy to spout Blatty’s more scientific or academic arguments for belief in God. On the subject of an accidental origin for life, a priest rants, “The odds against even one such virus appearing…is more than the odds against flipping a coin and having ‘eagles’ turn up six million times in a row.” It’s one such argument for the intelligent creation of the universe (we won’t quite say a Creationist’s argument) that the title of The Ninth Configuration derives from. But then again, if Blatty himself collects such provocative information, why not his equally passionate characters -- plus these facts are always indisputably fascinating. And if the characters in Dimiter, and in other of Blatty’s novels, at times seem a little similar in their brooding suffering, similarly stooped under their invisible crosses, it’s because they express a universal, existential anguish, a core haunting pain endemic to our species -- for if it were not so, religion would never have grown from a virus in the primordial soup of our souls. If Blatty’s extremely human characters suffer loss of faith in God, in goodness, in humanity and in themselves on such a superhuman level, it’s because -- like characters in the Bible, in Shakespeare, in any great story -- they are both realistic and emblematic at once. As God for an agnostic might merely be a symbol for goodness, and the Devil a symbolic representation of evil, so can such characters serve to symbolize all of us, as we stumble toward grace.