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The Angry Buddhist
By Seth Greenland
Europa Editions, 2012
400 pp.; $16 paper
The cover of my copy of Seth Greenland’s new book The Angry Buddhist shows a dreamy Southern California landscape with palms, a red-tiled roof, a desert mountain, and a swath of blue sky. Hovering in the sky is a quote from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David: “The Angry Buddhist is a great novel. It’s satirical, it’s political, it’s sexual. All the things I love dearly. Finally, something to come home to.” Having recently read the book from cover to cover, I can attest that it is indeed satirical, political, sexual—and rather a blast to come home to. But is it a great novel? I think that’s a question worth asking—and I don’t mean that to sound even remotely flip.
“I consider nothing human alien to me,” said the Roman playwright Terence. For me this quote provides both the key to defining a great novel and the fundamental reason for reading. Like many people, I read for sheer pleasure— but ultimately I read to have the boundaries of my own life broken open, to extend my experience to the widest possible range of situations, to enter the skin of human beings vastly different from myself. When I feel drawn into complicity with a character who initially makes me want to recoil—with Ahab’s obsessive hunt for his whale, with Raskolnikov’s crazily rational decision to murder, or with the blind apartheid convictions of Nadine Gordimer’s characters, for example—that’s when I know I’m reading a great novel.
Certainly, The Angry Buddhist has the potential to perform this kind of initiation for the reader, staking its ground in the dark side of human experience and presenting its characters in an unflinchingly unsentimental way. Jimmy Ray Duke of Desert Springs, California, is the man who gives the novel its title. He’s a feisty police detective who has been suspended from active duty because—in defiance of his police chief—he chose to save the life of an aggressive dog. Jimmy’s older brother, Randall, is a narcissistic congressman who’s running for reelection and trying desperately to keep up a glossy “family values” appearance. This isn’t easy, because (among other things) the youngest brother, Dale—a wheelchair-bound ex-con who constantly riffs in rhyme—is one very loose cannon.
A large cast of characters surrounds the three brothers, but it’s Jimmy who carries the soul of this book. He’s by far the most complex: an unconscious man who’s just waking up to his own unconsciousness; an edgy, bitter, volatile person who is capable of piercing moments of kindness and remorse. Besides attending his mandated anger management classes, Jimmy has recently discovered Buddhism. He’s giving mindfulness a shot, and he even has his own online meditation coach. Her name is Bodhi Colletti, and she can usually be counted on to give Jimmy a calming, grounding dose of her mind when the going gets rough.
And the going does indeed get rough—not just for Jimmy but for most of the characters as they get swept up in the wild ride of the novel’s plot, which includes the threat of blackmail, a mysterious blogger, a secret lesbian affair, and eventually even a murder. As a reader, I too got swept up in the plot and—though I generally prefer books with a subtler story arc—I did find myself turning the pages to discover what was going to happen next.
Something else that kept me engaged was the sheer quality of the writing, which is studded with witty and incisive observations, believably gritty dialogue, and vividly quirky description. Unfortunately, my attention was frequently snagged by the text’s surface sloppiness—so much so that I kept checking to see if I was reading an advance review copy. Alas, it appeared to be the final version, and glitches abounded from start to finish: typos, misspellings, grammatical errors. The book really needed— and deserved—another round of careful copyediting.
Ultimately, however, what kept me from fully engaging with the novel was a longing for greater depth in the characters. With the exception of Kendra, who is married to Jimmy’s sleazy-politico brother Dale, I found most of the characters to be rather flat, shallow, and unappealing. In fact, although I was keeping a careful chart, I had a hard time remembering who was who. And precisely because Jimmy was potentially the most intriguing and endearing character, he was the most disappointing. He simply never stepped out of the pages to become fully real for me—in large part, I think, because I never really felt the source of his anger. I was told that he was angry, and I was offered some vivid descriptions of his sensations of anger, but as a reader I remained on the outside looking in. I think if I had been shown more of his past, given a more vivid depiction of his childhood struggles or of his recently failed marriage, for example, I would have felt more drawn in by his rage.
The Buddhism in The Angry Buddhist also never felt deeply convincing to me. Jimmy’s question, what some might call his “personal koan,” is a powerful one: How can I achieve greater detachment from my emotions while remaining a moral person? But because Jimmy’s intense emotional states never became real for me, I couldn’t feel the urgency of the question. I actually wish that the book itself had been more Buddhist—by which I don’t mean sweeter and softer, but rather less separate, more willing to enter into the skin of its flawed characters.
As I read the novel, I found that I kept thinking of the late British writer Iris Murdoch. Like The Angry Buddhist, Murdoch’s novels are darkly humorous. They usually involve an elaborate plot that is set in motion by someone very much like Randall—which is to say a charismatic, but highly unconscious, narcissistic character. Though Murdoch, too, favors an omniscient point of view, her narrator tends to be closely focused on at least one character who is deeply emotionally involved with the narcissist. Through this focus, she is able to convey an intense degree of curiosity about, and even tenderness for, the highly self-centered, manipulative character who catalyzes the novel’s pain and chaos. This forces the reader into the kind of complicity with a highly flawed character that I believe is the hallmark of the finest writing. And it’s this kind of complicity that, for me at least, never happened during the course of Greenland’s book. Randall the narcissist is a shallow cad at the beginning, and he is a shallow cad at the end—with very little illumination of the state of being a shallow cad. The reader comes much closer to feeling a sense of connection with Jimmy’s flawed character—but something in the narrative comes in the way again and again. One very striking example occurs rather late in the book, when Jimmy has been taken into custody by the police and is being driven to jail. The passage begins: “Jimmy sits in the passenger seat pleased the marshal does not try to engage him in conversation.”
What I wanted and expected here was a drop into Jimmy’s interior to know how he was reacting at this crucial juncture in his life. But at this precise moment, with its promise of a deeper, more intimate connection to Jimmy, my attention was yanked away to a—quite literally—aerial perspective. The passage continues:
Driving north on Highway 111, he gazes up at the sky where a jet is flying west. In the plane the passengers are settling in for the short flight. The interior is hushed, the only sound the roar of the jet engines. In Row 12, Seat A, a woman looks out the window at the desert below.
The woman looking out the window is Mary Swain, the utterly shallow, glamorous political rival of Jimmy’s brother Randall—and a character that I couldn’t care less about. This kind of rapid cut might work well in a film, but for me it represents a failure to make use of the unique power of a novel to convey the inner world of the main character.
When I learned that Showtime is developing The Angry Buddhist for a TV series, something clicked into place. For me, the book’s many strengths lay in its intense and elaborate plot; its witty, edgy, satiric tone; its finely honed sentences; its great ear for dialogue; and its vivid sense of setting. The flaw lay in its underdeveloped and often somewhat smugly observed characters, and in its panoramic point of view that keeps the reader from a more intimate sense of connection. Reflecting on this particular combination of qualities, I find I’m not able to agree with Larry David that this is “a great novel”— but I do think that with the right actors to inhabit the ingenious plot and bring the zanily motley cast of characters to life, it could turn into something great on the screen.
Noelle Oxenhandler teaches creative writing at Sonoma State University. Her most recent book is The Wishing Year.