[16 June 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
Meet Luke Hunter, skater, stoner, death prophet, and 17-year-old narrator of Joanne Proulx’s premier novel Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet. Chapter one, per his usual evening ritual, parked on the greasy basement couch of his local marijuana refuge, stoned on the worst weed suburban money can buy, narrator Luke is suddenly struck by the overpowering premonition that his good friend Stan will go “head to head with a van and lose.”
Sure enough, as the next morning dawns and this drug-induced vision comes to pass with indisputable accuracy, at exactly 8:37 as Luke predicted, his friends freak out and dash to the media who immediately dubs Luke “Stockum’s Death Prophet.”
Like this reviewer, your interest may be spiked by the seemingly unique premise of this modern coming-of-age story, but readers beware. Instead of an insightful window into the emotional development of an emerging prophet, suburbanite Luke wastes our time bellyaching about parents too adult to understand his lunchroom plight, whining louder than an ambulance about his cupcake crushes. And the clincher, frequent mentions of Papa Roach and Red Hot Chili Peppers, bands Proulx obviously pulled from her hour of extensive research watching MTV, reveals just how disconnected this author is from the modern teenage experience.
As a matter of fact, all Proulx’s characters devolve into lifeless suburbanites who play out their mechanical, predictable existences with all the stilted dialogue and stereotypical reactions of crash test dummies. Think Lifetime presents Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, starring the teenage Beetle Bailey, a story about a 17-year-old who can see the future, but would rather be just your average normal kid, smoking pot, skating off into the sunset.
Joining Luke is his best friend of the last decade Fang, who eventually becomes suicidal after we learn he’ll be outed by the local newspaper as part of an underground homosexual club that meets after hours at the neighborhood park. A plotline which is never fully developed mind you, but instead presented as a “just one of those things” over which Luke hardly bats an eye. Or how about Luke’s mom and dad, two parents who, despite their crumbling marriage that’s miraculously saved by a quick trip to Paris, love their complaining son enough to hug him when he comes home wasted.
Three hundred pages into the novel, you finally meet Uncle Mick, a blood relative who shares a watered down version of Luke’s extrasensory genetic abnormality, a man Luke constantly avoids throughout the book for no legitimate reason whatsoever. Then there’s Astelle, the missing teenage girl who everyone suspects is being tortured and raped by a grizzly, villainous man. But instead of an actual instance of pragmatic evil, this girl simply reappears in town one afternoon, claiming to have initially fled Stockum with her junky boyfriend, yet another author move that reeks of insufficient mastery on the subject.
And let’s not forget about the smart, attractive, all around likable Stan, who is accidentally killed by a van one morning, just as Luke predicted. Truth is, however, no reader would ever miss Stan, dying one chapter into the book, and his picturesque high school lifestyle quickly becomes an absurd, weak plot device meant to flag the obvious notion life isn’t fair. Again, instead of an actual, messy death, Proulx gives readers a clean and unoriginal point that not only sounds preachy, but eventually leads to the antiquated ethical assertion that frequents the end of children’s fables, a format that can hardly deal with the pragmatism of homosexuality, modern religion, and sexual discovery.
Now, add to the mix a holier-than-thou fundamentalist preacher, a cartoonish Polish widow whose thick accent you can barely understand, not to mention the Catholic doctor who cleans Luke’s feet and automatically believes his prophetic story, and you’ve got a recipe for the flat, formulaic fiction that is Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet.
Tally all these abbreviated conflicts and grossly underdeveloped characters, and you’ll still only gather a hint of Proulx’s inorganic, stagnant, and unbelievable narrative. Muddling through more than 350 pages of dumbed down teenage commentary, Luke never really expresses genuine curiosity about his “death visions,” which makes this reviewer suspect Proulx never possessed the insight into the complexity of the teenage mind that such a novel’s premise presupposes.
Truth be told, this excruciatingly boring and unoriginal teenage account concerns itself more with the oh-so-important issue of popularity than the ominous psychic presence which it establishes in the very first sentence. At this point, not even a brilliant sequel could redeem Proulx’s inaccurate, misleading, and insulting new millennium depiction of the young adult experience. In a word, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet never attains the stature, nor the resonance that should reveal the complicated, engaging inner story of the modern adolescent.