Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Thinking Out Loud on the Homefront: Thirty-Seven Will Mess With You

Whether due to sheer stubbornness or just some innate need to finish what I started because I had to know what happened, I managed to finish my 15th book of the year Tuesday morning. Titled "Thirty-Seven" and about a character of the same name, this novel, by Peter Stenson, was exactly what the synopsis on the book flap said it was going to be. The only problem I had with it was it was almost too honest.

Set in the present day, we quickly learn the main characters. There is Thirty-Seven, formerly John Doe, formerly Mason Hues. He is not yet 20 years old, but has already lived a life that is darker than most of us would ever wish on our worst enemies. Early on in the book he meets Talley, a woman not much older than he is. That they will inevitably get together as a couple is seen coming from the moment they meet and she offers him a job. Their coupling happens in a way we as entertainment consumers have seen numerous times; she breaks up with her selfish boyfriend (who is in a band) and circumstances lead she and Thirty-Seven into each other's arms.
As the layers of Thirty-Seven's past are slowly revealed, Talley's initial fear shifts towards a feeling of want and desire to be just like him. As one of the "Survivors" who has distanced himself from a cult, Talley looks to Thirty-Seven as a new leader of the same order, and together they restart similar practices of the philosophy he had tried to leave.
But as Michael Corleone once famously said, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"
The similarities of the practices slowly morph into the old practices Thirty-Seven had tried to leave, and in the process he winds up losing himself. Again.
This book was not without some very poignant observations. For instance, whenever there is a news story about a cult, we, the viewers are almost always left wondering some version of this question: Why? In "Thirty-Seven" Stenson explained how "any grouping of individuals experiencing a traumatic experience with fatal consequences, only to be 'saved,' develop an overly dependent relationship upon their savior." Indeed, the character "One" had infected many of his disciples with dose upon dose of chemotherapy drugs under the premise of "sickness bears honesty" and "honesty bears change." Due to One's teachings, three dozen people got themselves sick in order to reach true honesty. It was through this effort that One hoped to change the world, with what he perceived to be real honesty, leading to real change.
The focus on cults also touched on how a cult's leader tends to believe that he (or she) is a deity. At one point the idea of a deity is broken down into the moral center of every person. And morality can "either be nurtured or left in a smoldering car in a sea of asphalt." The original cult leader, One, is painted as a person trying to change the world. Thirty-Seven, by the end of the story, has developed godlike beliefs due to so many disturbing circumstances in his life before, during, and after his involvement in One's cult. As the book flap said, the story certainly wound up exploring "our need to believe in something greater than ourselves - and our ultimate capacity for self-delusion."
Perhaps what bugged me most about this story - which was still well presented and incredibly blunt and honest in its presentation - was just how plausible it was. Given the times in which we live, having something similar to this play out in the real world would not be shocking in the slightest. It would also lead to a crazy cycle of news on the 24-hour networks, something alluded to as being avoided by Thirty-Seven.
There are also questions raised in this book, mostly about how honest we are with ourselves no matter our station in life. If, for example, you are a voter who backs a political candidate because that candidate supposedly believes in the same values you do, how would you react if you found out that on said candidate's personal time, those values are not practiced? Imagine a person in power appealing to an evangelical base, and then being caught in a same-sex relationship. It's happened before, and it's bound to happen again. Essentially, the question raised is this: can there be public honesty if only hypocrisy is practiced in private?
Ultimately, the thoughts I had while reading this book were both feelings of fear and courage. It is truly scary how far down the rabbit hole people will go to feel accepted, and that mentality is truly examined in this tale. However, it also takes courage to understand that not every person we come across in life will accept us for who we are. As the book touches on, it is possible to choose those we wish to be around. And if this book taught me anything, it is this: be careful who you choose, because while some rabbit holes can be comfortable and welcoming, others can lead to nothing but darkness. Choose wisely.
Howie Balaban has moved on to book no. 16 for the calendar year and he is hoping that it is nowhere near as disturbing as the one he just finished.