"God lives in my hometown."
This begins the description on the back of B. Thompson Stroud's debut novel, Seven Hill City. He roots this thought in his comparison of his hometown of Lynchburg,Virginia to places of biblical significance, such as Rome and Jerusalem. Just like them, Lynchburg is nestled atop seven hills, its culture anchored in Christianity. In many ways, this is correct. Lynchburg is the heart of the Bible Belt, having more churches per square mile than just about any city in the nation.
But as you reach the novel's conclusion, which I shall not diminish by divulging, you realize that this is not as metaphorical as you might think. Such is the ratherseemless nature of the author's prose, and the purity of the work's intent.
I had reservations going in, I will admit that. Having known B over the web for some 4 years now, I've grown somewhat accustomed to his caustic teen angst writing style: tales of Nintendo, wrestling and cheesy pop-culture. In all honesty, I expected more of the same. When I finally let my curiosity get the better of me and I bought the book, and found myself having finished it in less than a 24 hour period, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Seven Hill City is not a comedy, or a drama, or even a faux diary of a Generation Why net writer. It's not even a narrative, really. It's an open window into a house of both good and bad memories, an attempt at self-exorcism by way of the printed page.
The protagonist is Brooks, a young man who is not only conflicted by his own doubts and feelings, but conflicted by the very act of confliction. He is the pudgy, ridiculed boy who everyone teased on the playground for being different, a past that has left him over compensated in his self-image and with an eating disorder that he has inwardly atoned for by convincing himself that vomiting keeps him grounded. When he kneels before the toilet, he doesn't just throw up his dinner. He expunges himself of ghosts that never quite went into the white light, sins that were never absolved.
Brooks is surrounded by death on every side, leaving him to question the existance of his family's God. As the book opens, he is a college drop out, back home just in time to attend the funeral of his best friend Curtis, a victim of a senseless suicide. Mourning alone, he feels the warmth of an embrace, and turns to see the object of both his inner and outer pursuits, a girl by the name of Aranea Cavatica. He doesn't know her, not in a personal sense. But at every funeral that he has ever attended, every death he's ever mourned, there she has mysteriously appeared to comfort him through his loss, only to vanish into memory just as mysteriously.
He longs to know this person better, without even knowing why. As time goes on, he personifies her as a love of destiny, a cure for his endless malaise and an answer for the questions that God has never answered, a destiny that is constantly elluding him. He rids himself of the frustration of failure by way of his lover Auburn, who is there as more of a convenience as anything else. Not in love, not even in lust really, their relationship is one of compensation and self-denial, but for different reasons on both their parts.
One day, not long after Curtis' funeral, Brooks receives a phone call from Aranea. From there begins a friendship that is at once just like so many we all as men have had, but at the same time is unlike any friendship that any of us have ever known, made all the more surreal by the time the last page is turned.
This book is not truly auto-biographical. Make no mistake about it, Brooks is B. Not the "Swan" who once adorned the pages of X-Entertainment, nor the writer who now calls Progressiveboink.com his net home. Brooks is the guy behind the keyboard, the one whom the net character of B was created to protect from the outside world; a man whose past haunts him so that the very mention of certain video games or wrestling matches can reduce him to tears because of the emtional attachments they share to those he's lost.
But Brooks' pain is more poignant. He's not like so many of us, those who proudly show off their war wounds as though scars define their personality, or those who love sharing stories about all the rehab they went through after their car accident, as if surviving horrors defines the soul. Brooks is defined as the person he is because, in a sense, he didn't survive any of his pain, but instead relives it each day from sun up to sun down, like a ghost with skin and a heart that still beats. He lays his pain and heartbreak out before us on a table, not so that we may see what he has been through and admire him for his resiliancy. He shows it to us just to say "Look, and see what this may stir within."
I know I'm sounding extremely melodramatic, and this is not the kind of insult-laced review that readers of my work are accustomed to. But I can't apologize for that, simply because I have nothing bad to say. The book brought back memories of my own losses and shortcomings, things I thought I'd left far behind me. As I've thought on it today, trying to get my thoughts organized in preparation for this review, I could see myself in Brooks' shoes, because I realized that I hadn't gotten over anything anymore than he has. Much like him, I'm a walking novel of old injuries, but unlike B, I could never open myself up enough to share that pain with anyone outside of those closest to me, and certainly not with anyone willing to pick up his book. That signifies an act of courage far beyond his 22 years. And not to sound condescending, but I'm still in a state of shock that such a touchingly bittersweet work could come from someone who was essentially myself, but seven years ago.
Structurewise, the book at first threw me for a bit of a loop. B jumps around quite a bit, past to present to dream to past and back, often without warning or even a transitional break in the text. At first I attributed this to bad editing, but later on in the book, the text switches point-of-view to a College Professor on the verge of committing a sin against his faith, and the jumping ceases immediately. That's when it dawned on me; B was attempting to put on paper a literal depiction of the thought processes of the early twenty-something mind, a jumble of intersecting thoughts, worries, ideas, memories, hopes, dreams, and nightmares, all fighting for prominence, but none taking center stage long enough to be focused on and dealt with. He achieves this as perfectly as I've ever seen on paper.
He strength in writing, much like Clerks writer/director Kevin Smith, lies not in the creation of scenes or plot, characters or themes, but in the dialogue of the characters. At first reading, some may think that his dialogue is overly expositional. His characters, even in the most painful of situations, weave puns, cultural references, and Nietche quotations into their vocal tapestries, so much so that some may feel that it gives the dialogue too much weight. Not so. What some may fail to realize is that the people who live in Brooks' world, the people who live in small towns and have nothing but TV, movies, music and wrestling to relate to, they DO talk like that. I know, because I am one. I read these conversations, and remember similar discussions at the worst of possible times. Discussing the Shakespearean undertones in Disney's Toy Story with a friend during my aunt's funeral. Talking with another friend about the events that led up to the loss of my virginity whilst surrounded by kids on It's A Small World... By vocalizing these things B gives his characters life in much the same way that Smith conjured Brody, Dante, Jay, and the rest, and just like Hughes brought Ferris, Cameron and others into the public consciousness.
This book screams to be made into a screenplay. A man like Hughes could easily take this and turn it into the film that re-introduces him to the teenage audience he lost 20 years ago. It is, in essence, the mind of Generation "Why" on paper for all the world to see, the truest definition of that lost middle state between 19 and 22 that I've ever read, that gap in our lives where we no more know who we were before than we know who we are or one day will be. It is a painful, sorrowful trip to a town of people who seemed blinded by their yearning for a personal Savior. It is love, loss, isolation, anger, hatred, wrestling, retribution, Nintendo, pain, grilled cheese sandwiches, and lost opportunity, all bound in two hundred and twenty-nine pages of softbound life. And that's the greatest compliment I can give it.