Religious zeal, a cautionary tale
In James Robertson's latest novel, a Church of Scotland minister goes missing for three days in a gorge, only to miraculously emerge alive. The trouble begins when Gideon Mack claims the devil saved him. This ignites a scandal in the sleepy town of Monimaskit, leading to Gideon's ostracism. The minister ultimately leaves town and is found dead on a mountain one year later.
The book is narrated by a cynical publisher, Patrick Walker, who has been sent a strange manuscript by freelance journalist Harry Caithness. Caithness pleads with Walker to look at the manuscript and consider it for publication. "The Testament of Gideon Mack" is Gideon's account of his life, right from his strict upbringing to his marriage to the feeble Jenny and his love affair with the beautiful Elsie to his banishment from Monimaskit.
Mr. Robertson gives the reader hints of the duality he intends to introduce in the protagonist's character. The young Gideon is fond of reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Unknown to himself, the core of this tale will strongly resonate with his own life.
Gideon's father, the Rev. James Mack, is a strict disciplinarian looking down upon life's simple pleasures. There is a scene in which he lashes out at the young Gideon for secretly watching "Batman," only to be struck by an unfortunate stroke.
A bullying incident at school reveals that there are two aspects to his self -- one the devilish Gideon, willing to sin, and the other, the priestly Gideon, reprimanding this devilish self for its wanton immorality -- and connecting the two, like an invisible thread, is the deeply ingrained fear of God's wrath. To Gideon, fed on a diet of Calvinist morality, bridging the gap between religion and desire is a lifelong effort, at which ultimately, he fails.
Despite following in his father's footsteps to become a minister of the Church, Gideon is an atheist. There is an endearing passage in which Mr. Robertson explores the doubts wracking his brains:
"I didn't believe in him and yet he was still there, a hovering doubt in the background of every move I made: somebody out there may be watching you. I thought I'd got it all out of my system as a boy, but I hadn't. You don't, not if it's in you in the first place. Anyway, the point was, he was there or he was not there, whether you believed in him or not. I happened not to believe in him, but he was still there. And that was the twist: even if he didn't exist, he would still get you sooner or later . . ."
"The Testament" is, at one level, the tale of a man gone loony after a string of personal tragedies which includes losing his wife, Jenny, to an accident. But looking deeper, it is also a cautionary tale of religious zealousness ruining a conscientious man's life. The devil, it turns out, is none but the cry of Gideon Mack for a connection in a world gone horribly wrong -- a world where the benign hand of God is absent, in spite of Gideon's perpetual readiness to be tested upon his faith.
To protect just the things he holds sacred, such as his love for Elsie (despite the relationship being adulterous), Gideon must embrace the devil in him. He must embrace that which he knows to exist as a thing of beauty, yet which cannot be accepted as a reflection of God's grace.
The epilogue explores Caithness' visit to Monimaskit to meet with the locals and learn, first hand, the truth behind Gideon's tale. Much of the manuscript is revealed to be half-true at best, such as Gideon's suppressing of his roaring love affair with Elsie. This leads the reader to wonder if Gideon was being compassionate in sparing Elsie the awkwardness of facing the truth or if, as the tale slantingly points, something else was amiss.
Blending the best elements of the supernatural with an engaging tale that makes one question their assumptions about morality, religion and God, "The Testament of Gideon Mack" is a startling book indeed.
This review appeared in the Washington Times. The online link is here.