Skip to content

Goodreads Review

A new 5 star review on Goodreads:

Goodreads: Frederick Frankel rated it ***** (it was amazing)

This is an historical novel, a novel of ideas, and a journey into and out of darkness.

I received a review copy because the author, Franklin Debrot, liked my review of Witness, by Whitaker Chambers. There are parallels between Chambers’ autobiographical work, written in the early 1950s, and this novel. Both bring to life the world of the communist movement as it existed in the 20th century, and both place that world within a larger context. The collapse of communism, which in its heyday almost annihilated western civilization, should not lessen our interest in this subject. It’s apparent demise can be no lasting comfort, for its after effects remain with us, a symptom of something gone wrong in the heart of the West that has never been healed.

The novel weaves backwards and forwards in time, but its “present tense” is the end of the 1960s, in an historically black college in North Carolina. Two young men, Vincent and Jim, are recruited to help an aging professor, a certain Thomas Doswell, teach a great books course. Vincent is an idealist; he wants to fulfill the dreams inspired by his childhood hero, the celebrated Paul Robeson. Jim is emerging from a broken childhood, and trying to fit in as a middle class white man in an unsympathetic environment of militant blacks and wealthy white liberals. And Doswell is an outcast. The younger men are warned against getting too close to him. He is the object of hatred and not a little fear on the part of the college administration — an old man, an “Uncle Tom” whose ideas are out of touch with The Movement. But as both Vincent and Jim get to know Doswell, another picture of the man begins to take shape.

Over the course of the novel, Doswell recounts the main events of his life. A black man born in the era of Jim Crow, he qualified for entrance to Harvard, the white man’s most elite university. As a student, he rejected the religion of his father, a strict Protestant minister. He was instead intoxicated by the ideas of the Russian Revolution and its promise of a new world. That promise drew him into the service of the Communist Party, both in the USA and abroad.

Doswell recounts his role in the famous textile strikes of the 1920s in Patterson and Passaic. By the time those events are over, he is something of a legend. In the process, he has learned a great deal about mass movements and the art of leadership. He also learns the right way to play the American media, and through them, the American ruling classes. Then as now, it is surprisingly easy to get them to sign on to almost anything – just tap into what’s fashionable.

The Party recognizes his talents. They recruit him for more difficult and delicate work. He is trained in the theory and practice of spy craft. He is assigned to work closely with that curious Soviet agent and American capitalist, Armand Hammer. This part of the story is one of a long disillusionment, of terrible crime, and an unexpected awakening. In the 1940s Doswell breaks with the Party. He goes underground, but he knows the Party never forgets and never forgives.

By the time the main story resumes, Doswell still has his enemies. In fact, he is a more isolated figure than ever, carrying a weight of guilt and knowledge he cannot easily share.

That guilt and knowledge point to something striking about this novel, as well as Chamber’s writings. Simply put, many readers will experience a sense of vertigo while reading either of them. They will encounter a portrayal of recent American history that contradicts much that they think they know. There is a real possibility that, no matter how soberly the facts are stated, the truth conveyed by this heavily documented historical novel will be ignored or misunderstood. There are good reasons for my saying this. But perhaps that will not be the case. After all, there is such a thing as the long view.

The Meaning of the Title

Some people have asked how I came to choose the title Journey to Colonus for my American novel. This is a good question because it allows me to address something fundamental to its structure.

Nearly everyone has heard of Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’ play and his protagonist who is fated by the gods to kill his father and have children with his mother. Sigmund Freud made the name more famous by borrowing it to describe a morbid sexual fixation, the “oedipal complex.”

My protagonist has nothing to do with the fixation nor the ancient king’s peculiar family problems but he is otherwise a modern Oedipus the King. Like the ancient king who goes into exile, and which Sophocles tells about in his later play Oedipus at Colonus, my modern Oedipus, with the realization of his crimes, goes into exile in a town of the same name. His crimes are many, some more serious than others, and one like the ancient king’s is taboo, unspeakable – therefore not hinted here – and only discoverable at the novel’s end.

Both the ancient king and Thomas Doswell suffer from profound guilt which both fully confront. This is the backstory of Journey to Colonus: the past which few in their lives have the courage to face but which my king-like hero, like the ancient pagan king, does.

Journey to Colonus: A Novel of Race, ESPIONAGE and Redemption

 

My novel, which awaits the judgment of the reader, is about much more than espionage, but let me speak now of the spy story part of the book. In a realistic novel a realistic background is critical. Along with the imagination of the author there is the human experience anchored in the depths of what is recognizable, grounded in what has been lived and confirmed by readily accessible historical evidence. In this regard I was helped tremendously by an event unprecedented in the history of the rise and fall of empires. The peaceful fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, unprecedented in itself but rarely talked about, its collapse from within by the sheer impossibility of its socialist premise, made for something equally unprecedented: the recovery of previously super secret files from the KGB and other governmental entities going back as early as the Bolshevik Revolution.

Scholars from around the world poring over these documents, which were never intended to be seen except internally at some distant future, published them in scholarly presses. The preeminent one is the Yale University Communist series, some dozen books that appeared over the final decade of the last century. They revealed in clear detail the many uses of ‘useful idiots’, life both in the Soviet Union and its satellites but also in the West among ‘friends’ of the Soviet Union, spies, ‘agents of influence’, Western traitors and their Russian handlers, written while it was all happening and lived by the act-ers – not actors – themselves.

PHOTO ATTRIBUTION: By Минеева Ю. (Julmin) (retouched by Surendil) – Own work, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3332136

Literary Notions

books.jpg

PART ONE:   Truth That Lies Tell Best

A novel, by definition an extended work of the imagination, has by that very fact a very wide latitude enabling it to tell the full truth about people’s lives. Certainly science, which many in our positivistically colored world think of as offering undiluted truth, actually only deals in generalities even when it is applying those generalities to specific problems. This is not a knock on science, or its myriad applications, which makes our lives easier and offers solutions to so many human problems, for instance, in the healing work of the physician who applies his general knowledge to a narrowly focused problem his patient suffers from. It is simply to point out that fiction, as Walker Percy once noted, offers a way into the whole truth of an individual with a depth and thoroughness that we cannot have even with our relatives and closest friends. Thus it encourages us to ponder existentially what the sociological text can offer only in the generalities and abstractness of a category and not a living human being.

Of course not all novels and works of fiction provide access to the unique truth of the individual. Many works of fiction are intended as ‘entertainments’.

 

PART TWO: Novels As Entertainments Or Not

A literary ‘entertainment’ is a term Graham Greene employed in referring to some of his own novels – but only some. The Power and The Glory was not an entertainment. The End of the Affair was not an entertainment. Spy novels which the subtitle of my novel indicates that it is in part (a novel of race, espionage and redemption), as far as I can tell, are usually entertainments. Lots of excitement: numerous close encounters with violent death, car chases, slinky super-exotic spy women carrying on their persons futuristic jewel-encrusted deadly micro-weapons. This may be an exaggeration in regards to some but plot twists and, well, entertainment for its own sake is its purpose.

The point is not to be against pleasure or entertainment. The point is best understood by asking What kind of pleasure? What kind of entertainment? It makes a difference to me as a reader if the pleasure comes from more than the vicarious excitement of an external action or scene. If it is more than skin deep, or certainly more than something contrived in its plot to roll out escapist adventures, if it springs from an interior truth which captures me because it is deeply real, then it provides a pleasure that we can find in no other place. What we experience in The Power and the Glory through the life of a failed priest who becomes the prey of a murderous political regime, or in an apartheid South Africa through some of the characters in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, these are examples. It would be misleading to say that they are educational even though they are because they are so much more than what we usually mean by that word; just as it is so much more than what we mean if we say these novels are entertaining — even though they are.

It is this whole truth which we discover in the reading of a serious realistic fiction which sometimes moves the normally anti-clerical reader, or the Fifties pro-apartheid South African, with a measure of sympathy and understanding towards those whom he has only previously seen as alien strangers. And even a novel which has clear defects such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, so moving was the character of its protagonist, Jean Valjean a former convict, that it contributed within a generation to the reform of the French penal system.

Another Review

From the Guild Review: (link here)

January 26, 2017

Journey to Colonus: A Historical Novel and Much More

Franklin Debrot’s debut novel, Journey to Colonus, though a work of historical fiction long in the making, is a work for the present day, with themes of racial conflict, political divisions, campus agitation, and Russian influence in America. That all this is discussed in a novel which is well crafted makes it a very worthy candidate for your 2017 reading list.

The story begins in 1969, on the campus of a fictional black college in North Carolina, at a time of considerable political maneuvering, with alliances and factions abounding. Our main character, Thomas Doswell, a college professor, stands oddly apart from all this, focusing instead on great works of literature and philosophy. Through his unfolding relationships with his teaching assistants, we learn not only about his approach to education and the vicissitudes of their personal lives, but first and foremost about Doswell’s secretive and dynamic past, including involvement with the Communist International.

Journey to Colonus has a measured pace. It takes much of the novel for all the key pieces to get into place, but Debrot ensures that these parts are as compelling as the whole. There are a few moments where the jumping between decades is a bit disorienting, but I was overwhelmingly impressed by Debrot’s ability to develop characters and weave together the disparate elements of their stories. (As someone who has toyed with writing fiction, I can tell you that it’s harder than it looks, arguably far harder than writing non-fiction.)

Debrot’s novel rests on solid historical ground. An extensive appendix points to many of the author’s sources for historical context. (From my own reading in American history and the history of the Comintern, including this biography of one agent, Journey to Colonus gets both the broad dynamics and the particular details right.) Moreover, the novel overlaps heavily with Debrot’s own biography: growing up in New York, among the West Indian community, and teaching at a black college in North Carolina in the 1960s. This is familiar territory for him.

Some might object to what they see as an overly conservative book. After all, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s role in the Tydings Committee’s investigation of Communists in the State Department, for example, comes off broadly positive. But accusations of partisanship would be a superficial misreading of Journey to Colonus. The novel acknowledges that McCarthy was right, or very nearly so, about matters of national importance, but it also recognizes some unsavory elements of his personal life and tactical mistakes in his pursuit of Soviet influence. More to the point, Debrot’s profoundly humane novel shows that people’s actions, both personal and political, arise from a wealth of diverse influences. Without excusing immorality, Journey to Colonus acknowledges that results often differ from intentions, that people are sometimes funneled by their pasts into certain paths, and that appearances are not always what they seem.

At its heart, this novel addresses a topic that has been of considerable interest to me in the last few years, a topic found from Shakespeare’s plays to such recent television shows as The Crown and The Man in the High Castle, namely the intersection of the personal and political. National and international politics do not simply happen on their own: they are the products of individuals and their interactions, with all the quirks that entails. Likewise, politics does not simply exist in newspaper headlines, but has real implications for the lives of individuals. All of which makes the pursuit of wisdom and authentic relationships so important. Journey to Colonus is an enjoyable and enlightening guide along that path.

A Good Neighbor

fullsizerender2

Journey to Colonus has a good neighbor at The Sycamore Tree bookstore in Charlottesville, VA.

The book shipment has arrived

I now have a few paperbacks and hardbacks to hold in my hands. Feels good!