Ever since I picked up Herman Melville’s tale of the Whale, that great leviathan of beauty and destruction, I have been struck by the sheer poetry of Moby Dick. It teams with detail, buoyed up by a natural elegance that truly makes it a literary treasure. In my novel, Turning Idolater, the title of which comes from Melville’s work and intones the ability (or inability) to compromise, I blend unlikely elements using Melville’s basic theme that each life is a journey that needs to come to terms with earth’s organic unity. The sea is prominent in the work, but instead of Melvillian detail — nine hundred shades of white and every knot that can be tied for any reason, I developed the characters along a different course – a Dickens course. Smashing Dickensian characters into Melvillian amplitude gives the work a unique feel. Add to that the juxtaposition of romance and mystery, a good, old fashion whodunit (here a herring, there a herring – mostly red, but some a shade of pink), and the reader is provided with a memorable experience. The dichotomies are further maintained by placing the sleazy world of Internet porn beside the hoity-toity universe of literary circles.
Finding the balance between many diverse elements is the shell surrounding this nut, but at its heart is Melville and the sea. Young Philip Flaxen’s voyage across an uncharted ocean in a vessel that leaks like the Dickens and flags in bad weather provides the reader with a hero’s journey. Philip is taxed by the many anomalies that he cannot digest, yet somehow he remains afloat. In hindsight, I have achieved what I wanted to achieve. Besides my usual attention to the reader’s needs, I sought in Turning Idolater to fire up old Melville, who is sometimes more admired than read — to reach down and scrape off the Pequod’s barnacles — bring it ashore for a modern day inspection. I am happiest when a reader tells me, as they have, "Now that I have read about Philip and Tdye and Sprakie and Old Charlotte, I think I’ll pick up Moby Dick again and give it another try." For every chapter in Melville that drones on about the nine hundred shade of the color white, there are others that sing:
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
It’s a fine clear day, mateys, and the dolphins are calling, the gulls leading the way. You only need to be Turning Idolater to see your way clear through this damp, drizzly November.
Edward C. Patterson