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It’s all right, Jack

by
28 March 2013

Paul Handley reads a bestseller's follow-up

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Cross Roads
Wm Paul Young
Hodder & Stoughton £17.99
(978-1-444-74597-9)
Church Times Bookshop special offer £14.99 (Use code CT602 )

FORGIVENESS is an underrated quality in a reader. Few writers know just how indulgent their public is, coping with longueurs, blind alleys, clichés, etc. Why do we do it? Because we value what the writer gives us in return, be it sensation, language, or, more often, character.

In The Shack, we forgave Paul Young (Feature, 4 January) a plot based on extreme trauma, passages of unimaginative prose, and a few clunky scenes - all on account of his inspired writing about salvation, and a thrilling depiction of the Trinity. Since the "we" in that last sentence now stands for 18 million readers, it shows the power of forgiveness.

Despite the availability of editorial help which success attracts - Young lists 11 people in the ac-knowledgements - forgiveness is still necessary when it comes to Cross Roads, his follow-up novel.

This is the story of the redemption of Tony, an unpleasant US businessman, whose misanthropy (and misogyny) borders on paranoia. After another trauma, we find ourselves back in Shack territory: a mythical landscape through which Tony wanders, encountering Jesus, "Grandmother", and "Jack", who is never identified, but whom the knowing recognise as C. S. Lewis.

Also encountered is some clunky theology: "'So let me get this right,' Tony began. 'There is Father, that's your Dad, and you would be the Son?' 'And the Holy Spirit,' offered Jesus. . . 'This is a Christian thing, right? Christians are polytheists?'" Later, it all gets very Bunyanesque: Tony has to confront three fiends, Bluster, Swagger, and Ego, whom he defeats with the help of a little girl, Hope, the third person in Young's new Trinity.

If this were all, one might praise Cross Roads as a work of spiritual fantasy, forgiving the stumbles and enjoying some of the better conversations. But Young has another imaginative gear. Tony's mythical wanderings take place while his body lies in an acute ward; but he is not the only occupant of the hospital, nor the only wanderer. He is kissed by Cabby, a boy with Down syndrome, and slides into his head, looking out through the boy's eyes and able to speak to him. When Cabby is kissed by Maggie, a black Pentecostalist who helps to look after him, Tony slides into her; and so on.

It's all very bizarre. But even though I wasn't as taken with the obvious comedy moment as some of Young's American readers have been, it is good fun, too. There is a narrative purpose, of sorts: by inhabiting these people, Tony finds the friendship he lacked, and can share in their good nature. But more than that, we avoid the self-centredness that can accompany reformation just as much as its opposite, and can spend large sections of the book in the com- pany of good and interesting people.

It is not a perfect work, by any means; but you end up liking the characters, liking Young for creating them, and admiring the wild inventiveness that is far truer to the spirit of John Bunyan than the few derivative passages. And when was an evangelistic work as cheerful as this?

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