Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Clear as Mud


Letter from Point Clear
by Dennis McFarland

"It's complicated." "Things are seldom black and white." "Families are complex organisms with an ebb and flow to the relationships therein." None of these is a new idea, but Dennis McFarland expresses these truths without hitting the reader over the head. His story illustrates familial drama with a lot of tenderness, compassion, and subtle humor. I enjoyed Letter from Point Clear because the characters seemed like real people, not cardboard cutouts or obligatory caricatures. It is not a suspense novel, but you find yourself whipping through it, yet at the same time savoring the details. You really want to find out how these people work their way out of the impasse at which they find themselves.

What impasse? Boiled down: an earnest, young evangelical pastor (who also happens to have the first name "Pastor," very confusing until that is cleared up about halfway through the book) trying to come to terms with his homosexual brother-in-law. Pastor has certain beliefs about homosexuality, but finds those challenged when he begins to know a gay man and like him. His first response is to try to "save" Morris from his homosexuality - first by praying for him, and then by introducing him to someone who has been "cured" of being gay. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of tension between Pastor and his new wife Bonnie (Morris's sister) as well as Bonnie and Morris's other sister, Ellen.

There is a mystical encounter thrown in near the end, which I will let the reader discover for him/herself. What is intriguing about Letter from Point Clear is its sense of being unfinished. Nothing is resolved when the book ends, but the reader senses that the characters are all simply searching for the next step. They are all trying to break out of old ways of seeing things and assumptions they have carried around, but they are not there yet. However, they seems committed to being in relationship with one another, which I think is the only way hearts and minds ever get changed. This small group of people sees one another at each other's best and at their worst in a short amount of time, and all are affected by the experience.

There are also some ancillary story lines that never get fully explained. Why is Ellen temporarily separated from her husband when the story begins? What was the dead father like, and why does he have such a hold on his children's memory? Clearly there was some dysfunction in the family, but what exactly? At first I found these ambiguities annoying, but then decided that McFarland must have shrewdly let things stand that way, because that is how life is. We seldom can say exactly why things are as they are or why we do the things that we do. It's complicated.

Letter from Point Clear deals with families, faith, biblical interpretation, gay marriage, gossip, addiction, grace, and mysticism - plus there are no doubt other issues that I am leaving out. What makes it a compelling read, though, is that none of these issues is dealt with in an overt way or resolved like a neat, tidy package. There are dangling strings and open loops all over the place when the book comes to a close, but one has a sense that the characters are relying on faith in each other and in some sort of God to pull them through. It would be interesting to see what McFarland would do if he ever wrote a sequel to this. I would read it with great interest.

Reverent Reader

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