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Voice of Dissent 

One decade after Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn returns to 'rattle people's brains' again with his latest novel, The Holy.

For author Daniel Quinn, the Earth is a sacred place, which unfortunately we humans are steadily destroying. Our leaders might be aware of this environmental destruction, but are too fearful of losing office to speak out against such volatile issues. Similarly, preachers in the pulpit won't assume the job since the only religions that survive are those that serve humanity and affirm the notion of man's dominion over the planet. It's ours to devastate, and none of our fellow inhabitants can say differently -- or can they?

Like Dr. Seuss' Lorax, who speaks for the trees, Quinn has spent the past 10 years providing a literary voice of dissent. His latest offering is The Holy, which concerns Howard Scheim, a modern-day, 60-year-old Jewish private detective who has been offered the labyrinthian task of finding out what happened to the false gods of the Bible: Baal, Ashtaroth and Moloch, who later became known as demons. Although Scheim considers the assignment "all just shadows, just smoke," he takes the case.

Scheim doesn't acknowledge himself on par with his literary heroes Philip Marlowe or Nero Wolfe, but he does manage to shed some light on a missing entities' case that's at least 2,500 years old. What Scheim discovers is that these gods didn't go anywhere; they're still here. Without betraying the plot too much, the only reason Scheim can find them is that they want to be found. Mankind hasn't raised just the ire of a few grumbling environmentalists; this time it's the devil himself. For Quinn, this genre weaving of horror, mystery and fantasy, producing more suspense than philosophy, is precisely what he was after.

"I wanted to inspire people in a different way," Quinn explains in a phone interview from Baton Rouge while on his book tour. "I wanted to produce a thrilling and mind-blowing book," Quinn says. "And one that would rattle people's brains. As opposed to just scare them like Stephen King. I'm serious. I'm serious the same way that C.S. Lewis was when he wrote the Narnia books. Lewis was saying something that he deeply felt and believed. This is the same for me."

So much so that Quinn has spent the majority of his career decrying man's inhumanity to the planet. His passion was never louder or more overt than in his best-selling 1992 novel, Ishmael, which aired the anti-capitalism landholding opinions of the eponymous Ishmael, a grave and learned ape, as he related them to his human student. The book prompted a grassroots movement, spurred on by an unlikely source: media mogul Ted Turner. Turner awarded Quinn the first ever Turner Tomorrow Award and the unheard of sum of $500,000. This thrust the book into the public eye along with some literary notoriety -- there were some critics and authors, including Peter Mathiessen (one of the judges for the award), who claimed that the book really wasn't a novel but more a collection of ideas loosely bound by the ape/human conversations.

This kind of reaction has never bothered Quinn, who considers Ishmael to be a teaching novel. To paraphrase the old proverb: when the student is ready, the novel will appear.

"A great many of my readers are not so much readers as seekers. It isn't that they hang out in bookstores, or go to the library; someone tells them, 'You've got to read this book.' That's the way it's been passed along since the beginning. I've been told many times by people, 'I've never read a book before, until I read this book.' And I've been told that, 'I'll never read another.'"

Quinn hopes this isn't the case with the new book, which is unquestionably a novel. It is a metaphysical roller coaster ride with plot twists, loops of time travel, and moments where the bottom might fall out.

However, whether or not it will "rattle people's brains" depends on the reader. Much of what Quinn covers is familiar ground already well traveled by sci-fi fantasy greats such as Robert Heinlein and Douglas Adams, so fans of these writers might not be as taken with it. Plus, as Quinn himself readily admits, he is revisiting a theme, one that has become his trademark.

On the other hand, Quinn's quest to warn humanity is heartfelt as he explains, "This is my metaphor for what we are doing -- we are destroying the sacred place. I bring in these guardians to speak to this issue, so the reality of their existence is not what I'm trying to persuade anyone about."

And it is apparent that people are still heeding the call -- Ishmael continues to sell 80,000 copies a year, and, according to Quinn, his Web site has an astounding 3 million hits a month. So, it is a message worth repeating, and whether or not these demons exist, or they are we, is up to the seeker to decide.

click to enlarge 'I'm serious the same way that C.S. Lewis was when he wrote the Narnia books,' Quinn says. 'Lewis was saying something that he deeply felt and believed. This is the same for me.'
  • 'I'm serious the same way that C.S. Lewis was when he wrote the Narnia books,' Quinn says. 'Lewis was saying something that he deeply felt and believed. This is the same for me.'
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