Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Josh reviews The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland

Seth Greenland’s latest book “The Angry Buddhist” features a praising quote from no less than Larry David on the cover, a telling prelude for Greenland’s tale of politics, sex and corruption set amid the blistering California desert.  To Greenland’s credit, it is a funny book. Funny in the way “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is funny, or “Seinfeld” at its most caustic was funny. This means it’s also depressingly sad and uncannily true at times.  It would be an understatement to say that if half of what Greenland writes about is true, I bet more than a few people would vote with more caution.

Greenland’s tale focuses on the last week of the campaign between Mary Swain and Randall Duke and the shenanigans that ensue when Randall springs his brother out of jail early to affect a touching family reunion for the voters, worried of Mary Swain’s ability to sway voters with her firebrand speeches and short skirts.  Dale Duke is not quite the reformed citizen Randall needs, something the third Duke brother, Jimmy, knows too well. Caught in the middle are characters like Sheriff “Hard” Marvin, Nadine the ill-crossed lover, and Randall’s wife Kendra—by far my favorite character in the novel. Kendra is the epitome of failed dreams and a life of settling for comfort and constant wine rather than chasing her independence and freedom.

To delve too far into the plot would give too much away, but once Greenland starts spinning the web, no character is safe from the blowout created by one pivotal event. No one is one hundred percent pure, every character has a closet chock full of skeletons waiting to burst out at of course the least opportune time. Randall Duke is a fearsome politician hell-bent on preserving his job, his image and his lifestyle, no matter the cost.

I enjoyed “The Angry Buddhist,” despite its tendency to make me want to bang my head against the wall.  Too much of the darkly humorous turns and twists hit just shy of true-life headlines occurring daily.  More than once, I shook my head as I thought “Come on! That was a chance to do the right thing!” only to be disappointed once again by one character or another’s actions.  Time and again, Greenland’s character have the choice to act in a morally sound way and consciously choose to do the opposite, often to devastating consequences.  On a side note, I would have enjoyed more of Mary Swain. Despite being the other half of the election, the character herself gets little focus. She gets far less time than “Hard” Marvin her ardent supporter does, for example.

Other reviews have spoken positively of the way Greenland writes about the relationships between the Duke brothers and they are correct in pointing out that Greenland is quite skilled in portraying the skewed nature of the relationships between the three and the history both connecting them and tearing them apart at the same time. Jimmy is legitimately conflicted and Dale is hopelessly struggling to fit in and prove himself the only way he knows how. Randall is simply the juggernaut that crushes all other beneath his ambition and drive.

“The Angry Buddhist” bothered me after I read it, I won’t lie. I do not like the majority of the people in this book. Not even a little. If they were real people and bad things happened to them later, I would say they had it coming. Therein lies the genius of the book I think.  It takes something special to write characters so obviously flawed, but make them dynamic and interesting enough that readers keep turning the pages.  I personally would rather feel something than nothing. If I’m being critically honest, the quality of a book to me is not measured by how much I like the story, but how invested I become in that story. It’s easy to like a book where you root for the heroes to succeed, much harder I think to like a train wreck of immorality and corruption. On that and many other levels, Greenland has certainly succeeded.