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THE CHARLATAN’S BOY: A Review

Today marks the release of our own Jonathan Rogers’s newest book, so I thought I’d spend some time telling everyone here why I think they should read it. The book is at least as good as the cover, and the cover is, like, super cool. Here goes.

Earlier this year I read Tom Sawyer for the first time. I read it to my kids. When I closed the book I couldn’t believe I had never yet made time to experience all the humor, the rascally wisdom, the adventure, the honesty, and the insightful take on boyhood and human nature that runs like a big river through every page of Twain’s masterpiece. It’s so good. The Charlatan’s Boy is like that.

I also read another classic I can’t believe I’ve never read: Perelandra by C.S. Lewis (thanks, Kevan Chandler). I’m reading Lewis’s books slowly, since the canon is closed. It’ll be a sad day when I have no more of his books to read for the first time. But Perelandra! What a book. It might be the creepiest depiction of evil I’ve ever read, and the cosmic soliloquy at the end hurt my brain in the best of ways. Reading Perelandra, I felt like I was in the hands of someone who had encountered the Truth and wanted to tell me a story about it. I was all ears. The Charlatan’s Boy is like that, too.

When I wrote a blurb for The Charlatan’s Boy I described it as the kind of story Mark Twain might have written if he had been a Christian, or the kind C.S. Lewis might have written had he grown up in the American South. After I finished it I thought long and hard for something to compare it to and came up with nothing at all. Jonathan, a Christian from South Georgia with a Ph.D., wrote a story no one else could have written.

It’s anecdotal, as you might expect from a southern boy. Anecdotes were the language of the Florida community I grew up in. I was never able to speak that language well except maybe with a guitar in-hand, but my dad can still palaver with the best of ’em on his front porch, where I used to listen in awe to the richness and cadence of the language. Southern folks never lack for the pitch-perfect way to put something. The things they say sound ancient and new at the same time. For example: I remember sitting at home on the porch and saying to my dad, “It’s windy today.” He said, “Yup. So windy the hens are laying the same eggs twice.”

Every page of Jonathan’s book has a sentence that good. Grady, the main character, is an ugly, motherless child with a heart of gold. He tells us story after story about his misadventures with Floyd, a charlatan gifted at separating people from their money. It just so happens the best tool at Floyd’s disposal is not just Grady, but Grady’s ugliness. Floyd actually charges people money for a glimpse of the ugliest boy in Corenwald–a boy so ugly he might even be a Feechie. It’s a funny premise, and it’s deftly executed–sort of a literary situational comedy, seasoned with Jonathan’s intimate knowledge of just what goes on in the heads of  good ol’ southern boys. It’s easy, if you didn’t grow up in the South, to write southerners off as simpletons who cain’t talk right. But if you’ve ever read Flannery O’Connor or Wendell Berry or Faulkner, you know there’s often a formidable intelligence, a shrewd wisdom hiding behind all the y’alls and the yeehaws. Grady may be ugly, but his waters run deep.

And that leads to my favorite thing about this book. It’s not just wisdom hiding behind those accents and between the lines of this tale; it’s sadness. If a story about a boy so ugly he can make a career out of it is funny (and it is), it’s also one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. If The Charlatan’s Boy were a song, it would be the kind that struck you as happy until you really paid attention to the lyrics. Then you would notice the tension, the irony of heartbreak coursing through joyful strains. It’s like discovering that the grinning old fella who’s always been the church greeter, shaking hands with visitors and slipping peppermints to the kids, carried in his breast pocket a notebook of sad, lonesome poetry to keep him company at night. My point is, this book is much more than a comedy.

I got the feeling that Jonathan bravely told us some of his own secret story in the pages of The Charlatan’s Boy. For that matter, I felt like he was telling my own. I have often looked in the mirror and seen nothing lovable. I know my own heart well enough to know its profound ugliness, and I have wept over my own disbelief that God’s intimate knowledge of me and his deep affection for me are compatible. Somehow, though, God doesn’t just turn a blind eye to my ugliness. He doesn’t ignore it, or merely abolish it. He’s stronger than that. In Christ he does a greater wonder: he makes it beautiful. He turns it inside out. He does what evil can never do–he makes. He gathers up the cast off and misbegotten and arranges it just so.

My eleven-year-old loved it as much as I did, by the way, and whether or not you’ve read The Wilderking Trilogy this book stands on its own. It exemplifies what we’re shooting for here in the Rabbit Room: imaginative stories, good works of art, works that by virtue of their beauty and excellence proclaim the truth, whether implicit or explicit. I happen to know that the writing of this book was no easy thing for Jonathan. It took a lot of work and a lot of heart, and it’s plain on every page. I hope he sells a jillion, because I want to read more of his story, and more of Grady’s story, and more of mine. I want to laugh until I cry.

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