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The Old Man


This World Is Hard On People

5.0 out of 5 stars 
This review is from: Patriarch Run (Paperback)
The farther the reader gets into Benjamin Dancer's Patriarch Run the clearer it becomes that the author is not interested in writing just another science fiction suspense thriller that entertains readers but teaches them little or nothing of value. Dancer's novel is written by someone who has thought deeply and seriously about the story he wants to tell, and he's not afraid of taking chances, both stylistically and thematically, in telling it. There is more than enough action, suspense, and brain-taxing mystery to satisfy even readers most demanding of forceful diversion and head-spinning adventure and misadventure. However, from the outset it's abundantly clear that an author with Dancer's deeply tragic sense of life is not going to be satisfied with a novel that provides high-spirited and satisfying enjoyment, leaving the reader maybe a bit drained, but satisfied and untroubled.

Instead, Patriarch Run departs sharply from the usual import of even the most gratifying and well-crafted reader-friendly fiction by forcing us to acknowledge painful truths, as well as the most compelling and important aspects of that which we cannot know. If we're honest with ourselves, when we're at our most deeply introspective we find little that consensus would judge to be noble. We often discover that we have good reason to question our motives and even doubt our fundamental decency. Patriarch Run forces us to see this by lifting the veils of narrow self-interest and perhaps unavoidable naivete. Characters who are unambiguously heroic are hard to find in Patriarch Run, and for the most part they know it. Nevertheless, Dancer shows us that if we had the breadth of knowledge and keenness of vision to see people in the total context that gives rise to their lives, the imperfections that we find in ourselves and others would be explicable as unavoidable outcomes of all that goes into making us distinctive human beings. This kind of vision, however, is not something that comes with living in our mundane world, even if we've briefly experienced a glimpse of a preternatural alternative under extraordinary circumstances.

Patriarch Run is suitably fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. We meet characters whose commitment to a courageously patriotic life, something to which they give their all and repeatedly risk everything, learn that patriotism, as they have understood it, may set one on a fool's errand, one that causes harm and reinforces injustice rather than benefiting citizens at large. However compelling the evidence, this is a hazardous turn for an author to take in our hyper-politicized environment, especially when he finds a rough equivalence among self-promoting big governments throughout the world. It's to the author's credit that he knows that even good people with the most laudable objectives can't transform an impersonal organizational behemoth into something that we can stand by, proud and protected. Little wonder that deciding what is the right thing to do becomes so muddled in philosophical and practical difficulties in Patriarch Run. Who knows? Maybe the Neo-Malthusian catastrophe so ingeniously pursued by Jack, the father of the novel's protagonist, is the most humane way to go.

We all know that pain is a part of life, but Dancer's novel forces us to acknowledge it in inescapably personal ways that I found unnerving. The killing of a bison for what may or may not be a good reason, is such a commonplace sort of event in our carnivorous world that my almost tearful response to the head-shot death of the leader of the herd seems silly. But in Patriarch Run, death is not a remote abstraction, an unnoticed part of everyday life. It's real, painful, and deeply sad. The exchange of gunfire between Billy, the protagonist, and Jack is perfectly explicable in ways that all can see. But it dramatically emphasizes the heart-rending confusion that is an unavoidable part of life as we live it. It also illustrates the insane predicaments that can both unite and separate a father and son in a contemporary dialectic of kinship.

In a real sense, Billy has two fathers, one thoroughly admirable to the end, and the other a denatured victim of the world he sought to set right. It seems likely that if their roles had been reversed early on, they would have traded places, one becoming a contextually determined approximation of the other. Does Billy see this? And what will he make of it? Questions raised by this truly fine novel.
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