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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Sun House by David James Duncan

Sublime. That's the fastest way to describe this writing, this story, this world birthed by David James Duncan.


For almost 800 pages I've been swimming in the Ocean of Sublime—an ocean you can just as easily drown in as float. I'll get to that in a moment.


Second and third thoughts: How the f**k did he write this (let alone get it published) and how on earth can I convey what this is to people who may consider it a foreign language as well as the few humans who live for this stuff?


I don't know the answers to either of those questions. In addition, I don't know who besides me would be so drawn into this book.


I can tell you that there is a mythically romantic tone throughout and there are two main characters who start the book in separate stories in Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA (location is as much a character as any person): a boy-man, Jamey, and a girl-woman, Risa. I can tell you that they are idiosyncratic, independent thinkers who feel even more deeply than they think. I can tell you that Jamey is a people-loving, irrepressible clown with a father and a dog you fall in love with. I can tell you that Risa falls in love with Sanskrit sounds and language and Vedic sages and the whole world they birth and then lives with Grady, the funniest horniest philosophy student ever written, and then with Julian, a good-looking prick who is threatened by her love of "Skrit" and the inner journey. And I can tell you that the first-person narrator feels like a person-god, who I don't believe in, but he has such a great sense of humor that I more-than-willingly suspended my disbelief.


There are plenty of other characters who appear first in their own chapters. For instance: a mountain climber and a singer who love, have a kid, then don't love; an ex-Jesuit priest and his twin brother, a street nonpriest-sadhu who gathers a flock anyway, whose epistolary history of the Catholic Church's persecution of the Beguines mesmerized me (if Herman Melville had been this joyfully light-hearted and in love with his history of whales, he could have gotten away with it).


And in a symmetry that makes subliminal sense, these people finally begin to converge in the mountains of Montana exactly halfway through this epic in an "Eastern Western"—meaning "When East [spiritual traditions] touches West [the region of the USA], the central struggle is against cosmic illusion . . . (p. # NA)" And this is when the storytelling starts to crank up, so if you get bogged down in the first 400 pages, but are liking it, stay with it . . . particularly because, very soon after the convergence begins, the god-person narrator actually explains the unorthodox structure of this massive book, and hearing it can make you sparkle, as well as spiritually roar in the backtracked scene when Risa and Jamey finally start their journey together.


I found out the hard way that I needed to take breaks. Everybody speaks within a style of cascading thoughts, although it's slightly different for each character. (Think of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter or Aaron Sorkin's smart-smart-smart speed-demon, fact-laden intellectual torrents.) When I tried to read too many chapters without a rest, the spiritual stream-of-consciousness became tedious. So subsequently I took many breaks, and when I returned, I was open to the Voice behind the voice and ate it up; I realized taking breaks also evoked contemplation about what I'd read, and it was in contemplation that the heavy text got light and worked on me. Also, there are enough heavenly narrative actions and descriptions (see sample below) to break up the thought tirades.


If your life is completely focused on the surface of here and now—plot-plot-plot—and you are uninterested in awareness, enlightenment, or any kind of transcendent journey, let alone the power of the sounds of language beyond its literal meaning, you will not be interested in this book. In fact, you may feel like the distracted bar crowd who "don't get" what makes Risa, Jamey, and readers like me spiritually roar during their ecstatic convergence over a story of Gandhi's death.


But if you are a person who longs for Oneness, who is compelled by the debate between the counter-evolutionary force of ego vs. the evolutionary force of enlightenment (to embody "free nothingness at Ocean's [consciousness, All That Is] service" (p. # N/A)," if you're convinced that enlightening yourself is the only real work to be done in this life, if you pace yourself, eagerly surrendering, even to a language that sometimes strikes your poor undereducated head as chicken-scrawled squawks and the poetry of a holy fool (think Paul Beatty's screamingly hilarious The Sellout, only substitute the literary classics, mountain climbing, and Eastern philosophies for research psychology and The Little Rascals), you may end up in a blindingly brilliant roofless Sun House of indefinable dimensions—happier and more heartbroken than you imagined possible.


Writing sample:

. . . Jamey espied a seamstress's shop on Hawthorne Street with a bright-colored, new-looking, hand-painted sign that read: DAMSELS IN THIS DRESS. Typical of his modus operandi at the time, Jamey charged inside to inform whoever thought of the name that he or she was a genius.


The woman he found within—perched on a stool at a counter that doubled as her sewing table, hand-stitching spaghetti straps onto an altered prom dress—was the most spherical person Jamey had ever seen, yet also one of the most delicate. She struck Jamey as the thoroughly charming progeny of a Victorian-era porcelain doll and a beach ball—and when he began extolling the shop's name, the entire orb of her lit up! (page # N/A)


Thank you, Hachette Book Group/Little Brown, for the advanced reading copy. (You can buy book, audiobook, and e-book at the publisher's website.) And thank you to very smart marketing people who placed an excerpt (that reads like a short story) in Orion magazine where I first encountered it, lighting a flame inside me that ignited my desire for more.


For review readers who may want more—some good advice:

"'Stop chasing your thoughts,' . . . 'Watch people closely, the streams of them, without getting diverted by judging them, . . . and you'll start seeing these little acts of love. They're everywhere . . .' (page # N/A)"


A compliment:

There is not the tiniest speck of commercial concern in either the writing or the publishing of this book that will probably appeal to a small population of readers. If anyone reading my review feels drawn in some subliminal way to this material, I hope you will investigate it.



Nature, mountain climbing, and Earth life are central to this 776-page story. Reading it is a marathon. I'm glad I did it, don't anticipate rereading it, but this book will have a future life with me. Once read, it is the perfect treasure trove for bibliomancy—blindly selecting a section and reading. This works best with hard copies, and since I have an e-book, I can't let it fall open, point, and read where my finger lands. But I'll find a way. I'm so glad to own a copy of Sun House.


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