Like a diamond shining through the darkness is this gem of a book. Though it is self-published, the quality of the cover, formatting, book design, and the care in editing are superb. Clark West’s book is a great reminder that in the cut-throat business of writing and publishing, a self-published book can be better than the so-called “professionals.” I particularly found the oft-overlooked copyright page had received careful design and attention to make it consistent with the feel and style of the rest of the book. And although this is West’s first novel, it most certainly will not be his last. This story, taking place in Eastern Kansas and Kansas City, clearly reflects West’s own intimate knowledge of the area, which provide a relatable and believable context.
West prefaces his book with an appropriate quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche nested just before the table of contents. “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” This statement reflects the sentiment of the book; let me tell you how.
The Organist is shadowy in its flavor, drawing a stark contrast between the way we live in our world, and the real darkness which exists in it. Its pages are replete with the real horrors of life. Not the horrors of a genre which fills itself with gore, mythical creatures, and so forth, but a real horror--that humans are capable of great evil. If I could compare it to some well-known cinema, I would say its similar to a cross between No Country For Old Men and Wind River favoring more of the latter.
The Organist chronicles the story of Paul Dziedek, a Montana native working as a detective in Eastern Kansas. Paul is quickly confronted by a complex and gristly case which continually forces him, as the main character, to “gaze into the abyss.” Murder, a dead child, rape, and sexual abuse rear their heads as the monsters he must fight.
As I was reading, I was struck by the conflict a character like Paul experiences. He is, on one hand, very much disenchanted by religion, the church, particularly of Christianity. And on the other, he needs and serves as an agent of justice, which only fits logically into the Christian worldview. Told through the eyes of Paul, he narrates:
Olivia and I squirmed in our pews the entire time whilst listening [to] the minister spout ideological nonsense about an all knowing, powerful, and just God [who] loves unconditionally, yet would watch a young woman and her infant daughter be murdered in cold blood. The preacher’s hollow affirmations echoed a sullen organ, bellowing lightly a hymn each
disenfranchised attendee knew every word to.
This kind of sentiment plagues Paul and drives him to catch a killer, yet sows the seeds of his own incomprehensive worldview. He, after all, is part of law enforcement. His very occupation and relentless drive to find the guilty culprit assume upon some form of justice, law, and standard of right and wrong. The God he alienates himself from is the same one who satisfies the preconditions necessary to identify murder as a departure from the way things are supposed to be. The minister may be heartless, his preaching might be hollow, but are only so if there is an objective standard against which to measure it. He uses a standard of goodness defined by a God he rejects to judge another as “cold blooded.”
Paul’s struggle to catch a villain while fighting his own haunted past reminds the reader that if there is no God, then this world is truly haunted. It is haunted by elusive presence of the justice we yearn for, but can’t quite grasp. It is haunted if rape and murder are really a departure from the way things should be, but Christianity is cast aside as an inadmissible attempt to find objectivity. While religion may divide and distance some from the church, while some monsters lurk clothed in the robes of the clergy, and while the search for a deeper meaning to the pain and atrocities rests beyond the horizon – it is always out of reach if there is no where to stand.
Regrettably, Paul’s solvency feels very much incomplete. Though (without spoiling too much) he does catch the killer, though he does win, his character is left lacking wholeness. Not becoming a monster, himself, we are left to wonder if he, and everyone else, was already a kind of monster. The reader should be unsettled not knowing from where Paul is drawing upon the meaning he assumes. He defeats evil, and somehow has a knowledge that the righteous win. The complexity of Paul’s character draws its greatest empathy from the fact that he tells the story. Not by his methods, which are sometimes twisted, or his motivations, which are mixed, but by the fact he gets to frame the context through which we read and engage this novel.
I would recommend West’s book for those that can handle and sift this genre, though its probably not for everyone. As for me, I think this style is a necessary part of a literary diet, but we should, as part of our pallet, vary what we digest and may have to read a book like this in small doses.