At first glance, it’s easy to mistake A LESSER GOD (Reason Else Demise) for epic fantasy. A seemingly unremarkable, ordinary young man learns that he has a divine purpose and is gifted with supernatural abilities intended to help him attain his destiny of becoming a god. Don Hackett’s debut novel, however, is anything but a rousing fantasy adventure. The year is 1952, and the young man, Dion Athamas, lives in a small Mississippi town, spending his days fishing and hanging out with his childhood friend, Callender. Dion, who has been visited by a “genial spirit” who informs him of his “capacity to become an authentic god,” dedicates himself to achieving divinity and assembling a flock of worshippers who will bring peace to the world.
It’s a haunting, vaguely disturbing opening to a story that sends Dion on a journey through various experiences and encounters, not unlike an American counterpart of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, as he explores the nature of life, love, and spiritual enlightenment. Dion becomes entangled in the search for a cat named Count Paris, who belongs to a young friend of his. An enigmatic young woman named Estella, with whom Dion becomes romantically involved, becomes—like most of the novel’s characters—an emotional catalyst for Dion’s moral and ethical struggles. Later, Dion becomes preoccupied with obtaining a permit to stage a bullfight, which brings him into opposition against the town government—a conflict that illustrates the hypocrisy of self-professed devout Christians (the town leaders, who merrily bring picnic lunches to lynchings of Black people, consider bullfighting to be immoral).
Is Dion truly a demigod pursuing a divine purpose? Or is the narrative merely an elaborate delusion of a mentally ill person? A LESSER GOD leaves this question open to the reader’s interpretation. Ultimately, the novel is less concerned with whether or not Dion is an unreliable narrator than with his story’s moral and spiritual issues. If, as Christians believe, God is love, then what is the definition and nature of love, in light of the cruelty and injustice that societies rooted in Christian values frequently inflict upon the innocent? Hackett doesn’t seek to provide definitive answers to these cosmic mysteries so much as provoke and shake readers out of moral complacency. It’s a fascinating and philosophically rich undertaking, albeit one that demands a great deal of patience from the reader.
A dense, sprawling narrative, A LESSER GOD (Reason Else Demise) takes its time reaching its conclusions and might have been more effective at half its length. Dion’s permit battle, for instance, is depicted with exhausting detail, lingering well after its message has been thoroughly conveyed. While these pacing issues don’t negate the novel’s strengths, they do pose significant challenges in terms of reader engagement. However, for those with the stamina to follow Dion’s journey to its troubling—and thought-provoking—conclusion, A LESSER GOD offers a challenging existential trip through the murky waters of the human psyche.
The patient reader will be rewarded by Don Hackett’s A LESSER GOD (Reason Else Demise), a thought-provoking and philosophical novel that is more interested in posing challenging questions than giving easy answers.
~Edward Sung for IndieReader