Friday, September 18, 2009

a review of John the Revelator

John the Revelator by Peter Murphy
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 978-0151014026)

John Devine...what a suitable moniker...was named after John the Evangelist, who, with his bother James, were called the sons of thunder. So fitting, since our young John was born in the midst of a terrible storm. Or so his mother always told him, as she recounted the story of his birth. Of course, we come to find out, that is not the whole truth, as we find out later in the book, as his mother, knowing her time with him is limited, tells him some things about his unnamed father. Actually, he was named after an old folk song, John the Revelator, a song his father had taught her and that she sang to put the crying baby to sleep. Since it worked, she called him John.
Like John the Evangelist, who recounts in the Book Of Revelation, "And I John saw these things, and heard them.", our narrator recounts his experiences growing up as a boy in a small Irish town, filled with his own signs and somewhat bizarre and disturbing dreams.

Young John is a bit of an odd fellow, a loner with no friends, obsessed with things like tapeworms and maggots. His mother, who works as a maid for a number of the more affluent residents of the town, worries about him, while not letting on how serious her own health issues are. Then, one day, John makes a friend, a new boy in town, the very cool Jamey Corboy. Jamey will become his guide and companion for a number of John's firsts; his first cigarette, his first bar and nightclub visit, his first drink, his first attempt to pick up a girl...and his first act of betrayal of a friend.

I had mixed feelings about this coming of age story, things I like and things I disliked. First, the minute you open the first page, you will see that this 250 page story is actually more of a novella, it's length padded with large type and large page margins. I am not saying that is a bad thing, to be shorter, but I just wonder why the publisher was just not direct about that.

Second, I choose this book, at least in part, because as the back cover says, it is set in southeastern Ireland. Now, my father was born in Ireland, I have relatives in Ireland and have been there many times, so that was of interest to me. But anyone looking for a description of the beautiful Irish countryside, or any Irish countryside for that matter, will not find it here. There is virtually no description of the setting, except a bit of the town and of the seaside, when John and his mother take a picnic to the beach one day. Murphy totally captures the feel of an Irish town, but I guess I hoped for more. Perhaps a beautiful countryside would have clashed with his often dark vision, filled with the flaps and crackles of old, black crows and dreams of nuclear destruction.

And then there is the issue of the plot, or lack of it. This is the type of books that the award givers love these days. Character heavy, plot light, but that, to me, is not a great thing.

All that being said, there was also a good bit I liked about this book. There are Jamey's short stories, which he shares with John and we read throughout the book. Also Murphy totally captures these characters and his dialogue is excellent, spot on. His portrayal of Jamey's and John's friendship, through it's ups and downs, is always realistic. Finally, there is the relationship between John and his chain smoking, Bible quoting mother, which I found very moving, not caught in cliches and the highlight of the book.

Fans of so-called literary fiction may love this one and it has gotten some great reviews in the press, but bottom line, I'll end where I started, with mixed feelings about this book.

My thanks to the Amazon Vine program for my copy of John the Revelator.


  1. I do enjoy literary fiction, but I'm not very keen on religious content in books, so I don't think this is for me. Great review though!

  2. One of the reasons I would have considered this book is the Ireland setting so it's very disappointing to read in your review that the beautiful countryside is ignored. Now I like character-driven stories but I'm not sure if I like a book with virtually no plot. But my decision that I will not read this book was decided finally by this line of your review, Caite "Young John is a bit of an odd fellow, a loner with no friends, obsessed with things like tapeworms and maggots'! I detest tapeworms and particularly maggots. I had the unfortunate experience of watching an episode of "First 48" the other night and the body at the center of the investigation was found in a swamp & dead a long time and, therefore, crawling with maggots. Ugh! I almost threw up!

    So, I don't mean this rudely, but, as they say better you than me when it comes to this book, Caite! lol Too bad cuz I liked the cover.

    Caite, I love how comprehensive your reviews are and how honest. I can always count on knowing whether or not a book is for me based on your review and yet, you don't have any spoilers at all in your review! So thank you!

  3. I hear ya! On a scale of 1 to 10, I give "IT" a (5) cause I try to be a good man sinner vic! :)

    Hey! All kidding aside your review got me thinking about when our older mother was telling us about our birth and "IT" wet my eyes a little thinking that I should have sat down with Mom and Dad, God Bless their Souls, to ask them a lot more questions.

    Well I did write a book but I really did not consider "IT" a book cause "IT" was something in me that had to come out I guess. "IT" only took me about a week to finish "IT" and you guess "IT" was all about "IT" an invisible body traveling and creating a new world for some of my siblings. I wrote "IT" before my brother Albert died and I'm glad I did.

    Anyway I only circulated about three or four copies and I just looked in my desk but the one I kept for myself is gone now and God only knows where "IT" is but if I really want "IT" my good bishop has a copy of "IT".

    I don't know if "IT" would get a (5) also but "IT" is about 68 pages long, double spaced on 9 or 10 font size. :)

    I hear ya! For what "IT" is worth Victor, I'm not sure if I would like "IT", and seeing that I'm not crazy enough to tell you about "IT" because of sinner vic and other friends, so I think I'll just pass on "IT" for the time being.

    Alright! If that's the way you feel about "IT" then I, Me and Myself think that we'll just keep "IT" to "Ourselves" :)

    God Bless,


  4. P.S.

    Please ignore sinner vic cause he doesn't recognize the difference between male and female cause he's just a spiritual figment of my imagination. :(

  5. well.....ok then..... ;-)

    Amy, I try to be good about not writing spoilers. I think I am better than I used to be.
    Now there is a bit of plot. The mentioned betrayal, the mentioned illness, but that is a little too little for me.

    As to the bugs, I read a review of this book somewhere, after I wrote this, where the man loved the book but made the mistake of starting it while eating lunch. Like he said, a mistake!

  6. Well, I didn't know what to think before I read your review and I don't know what to think afterward either.

  7. Sounds like one I'm not going to watch for. Nothing about it really grabs me.

  8. I always like how you present a pretty balanced view when you don't really love a book ... you always present a very good picture of what the book is like. And this isn't my cup of tea at all so I'm giving it a pass.

    And Amazon Vine you say? Lucky DUCK!

  9. you have to tell it as you see it, or what is the point?

  10. yes, I believe I mentioned my invite to the Amazon Vine program. I am comflicted...I feel like I might have gone over to the Dark Side. But it is a Dark Side filled with books and other stuff...sent to my home free. Did I mention the speakers?


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