Lyricism elevates Portrait of an Unlikely Holy Man
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jesse S. Hanson’s literary novel makes visceral the brutality of homelessness, prison, and mental illness while simultaneously celebrating the possibility of love, illumination, redemption. The resulting story, told through the collective tales of inmates whose lives have been transformed by one man, brims with mystery and poetry.
Story: Suppose you were standing, like a tourist protected by a guardrail, over an opening into the pit of hell, when suddenly the rail gave way and you tumbled in. You wouldn’t know why – consumed with fear or anger, and surrounded by utter misery, it wouldn’t make sense to you. Yet the fate of many of the poor souls in our prison mental facilities is not so very different from that scenario, their crimes often resulting from the effect of some form of mental illness. Who can help them? Enter George. (From amazon.com)
Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Spirit has an advantage in mental hospitals. As Hanson’s hero says of his fellow inmates, “We don’t take as much convincing about the reality of things of the spirit, now do we?” Embodied by George, Spirit is the gentle undercurrent that helps moor the fragile minds in George’s band, including the self-described Eater of Death, ghost poet, and “dead” man, among others. He lectures them on the redemptive nature of love, and helps them understand that “broken minds and tortured souls are our gifts” that help them perceive the true nature of God. He teaches the men mindfulness techniques to resist hallucinations and fear; the lucky ones experience moments of enlightenment. To atone for his own sins, George takes their pain upon himself, although few are aware of his sacrifices. One narrator claims there is “a stronger community of hope and more believable faith in spiritual deliverance here than any I’ve personally witnessed outside.”
My take: Song of George is a literary novel, lush with lyrical prose, poetry, and songs. The plot lines verge on magical realism–or reality, if you’re of a mind to believe in spiritual occurrences. Using nuanced dialog and subtle characterization, Hanson present a stirring portrayal of life in a prison mental facility, and how powerfully someone like George can transform that life. The men seek peace, love, and understanding, all attributes that only those who have lived with broken minds on dark streets–such as George–can give them. Each man has his own story, and only by examining the whole of their stories, and discovering the sum that is greater than those parts, does the reader understand what kind of man George is. A quote by Kirpal Singh is at the heart of the book: “Spirituality cannot be taught, it must be caught like an infection which is passed on to others who are receptive.”
Hanson’s literary spiritual fiction is richly textured with original poetry, songs, illustrations, and prose that range from entertaining to inscrutable. All work together to create a lyrical reader experience that is mystifying, enlightening, and ultimately unforgettable.
Song of George: Portrait of an Unlikely Holy Man, by Jesse S. Hanson
All Things That Matter Press, 2010
Paperback, 332 pages
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