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Gardner has done three things here. First, he's written a good old-fashioned American novel in the Faulkner tradition. The story is loaded with people and places, mostly focusing on one family (doomed, of course): the Hodges from the small town of Batavia in western New York. Everybody has a story to tell, and Gardner coaxes it out of them.
Second, he's tunneled through this would-be placid scene and mined the book with robberies, murders, seductions, deadly fires, and horrific accidents.
Third, he's layered on top of this a series of fascinating and bizarre debates about free will and determinism, using a contrast between supposed Judaeo-Christian values and the ancient Babylonian mindset. The antagonists in these debates are Fred Clumly, chief of Batavia's police force, and the Sunlight Man, a scarred and possibly insane man who is also a philosopher and brilliant vaudeville-style magician. The Sunlight Man is a kind of cross between Jean Paul Sartre, Penn Gillette, and Monty Python.
It's all brilliantly done, with sometimes extravagant language and a deep, deep compassion for all the characters. And for the most part, Michael Butler Murray carries it off with energy and humor. There are a couple of words, like "recalcitrant," that he consistently mispronounces. But all in all it was such an enjoyable ride I was willing to forgive him the occasional lapse.
You should know that in places the book is quite slow. Gardner seems to have squeezed in every detail of backstory he came up with in the planning stages. And a couple of the subplots, interesting as they are in themselves, aren't very well integrated with the main story. But listen to it patiently. The ending sweeps up all the emotions that preceded it in a spectacular moment of triumph.
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