Review: John the Revelator

Posted on April 18, 2014 by

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John the Revelator
T.J. Beitelman
Black Lawrence Press

When I picked up John the Revelator, the cover of the book reminded me of David Lynch’s art book  Images. I don’t know if T.J. Beitelman had Lynch in mind for his “bildungsroman of the contemporary South” (as Lucy Corin states on the back cover), but after reading the book and re-watching Blue Velvet, I feel like they make interesting companions.

The book follows John after his release from a juvenile detention center. He ends up working for a gas station attendant and pimp named Karl. John finds new friends and the book is driven by his attempt to get free of Karl while keeping his friends out of danger.

While some of the book’s imagery sits nicely alongside Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic (Wiseblood and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” both come to mind), there is just as much imagery that slides closer to the Mid-Western surreal noir of Blue Velvet. Where Lynch flirts with the dichotomies of morality, in John the Revelator we begin on the wrong side of the tracks and rarely glimpse the “right” side, if, in fact, one exists. Not to say that the characters who inhabit the “wrong” side, are evil in nature, instead we get to see most of them—in the language of the book—living simultaneously in sin and virtue. Similar to Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, we have an irredeemable villain in Karl, but most characters live in a morality of Dorothy Vallens, a victim of Frank’s sadism, who is attempting to navigate between being a mother and a vamp and somehow stay whole. Jeffrey Beaumont, the protagonist of Blue Velvet, has the naive innocence of a Boy Scout. John is not Jeffrey. In one of the first scenes with John, we see him burning his own hand with a lighter. Despite this behavior and the fact that he commits several violent crimes, we still manage to find John a sympathetic character.

Stylistically, the book has dimensions of both pulp and literary fiction. There’s a fast-paced narrative about love, abuse, and friendship. That narrative is punctuated by what we are told is sometimes a journal and sometimes what seems to be a narrator. These sections tend to be more meditative and more “literary.” While all these aspects of the narrative are done well, I can’t help but feel that readers more interested in the plot may skip the more meditative sections.

First novels are interesting because readers are not only getting a story, but watching a writer develop a skill. Some elements are likely to fall flat in any first novel. For example, John, in one of his formative scenes of abuse, describes himself as “leaving his body, floating up to the ceiling and watching it from a distance.” For some reason, this either doesn’t ring true or seems cliché. There’s a scene with a scooter that is difficult to believe. As characters go, Karl is pure menace and it may have been interesting to see him fleshed out, but not necessarily so—he does what he needs to in the novel, but at some level as a reader I wanted to know him better.

I think it will be interesting to see where Beitelman goes in the future given that he has the ability to write poetic, literary passages as equally well as fast-paced plot. Will he continue to combine these styles or develop them separately in future works? Either way, Beitelman and John the Revelator remind us that there is more, much more, to Alabama letters than moonlight and magnolias.

Posted in: Opinion