Thursday, January 5, 2012
Keith Kachtick's "Hungry Ghost: A Novel": Review
Kachtick brings ambition and range into this narrative, as Carter integrates, half-successfully, his growing commitment to Buddhism with his louche bedding of more women in his thirties than the time Mia's been kissed. We find this and all information conveyed in a daring, and initially off-putting, voice in the second person. Carter's taken this on "to fully disassociate" awareness "from the obstructing, lower-self 'I' that thinks in terms of 'me' and 'mine' and 'may I unbutton your blouse now, please?'" (14)
He attempts to desire to be without desire, and this telling of his tale as he tries to overcome his passions shows how he fails, and how he succeeds, in a book combining character studies with adventure, and social commentary with spirituality. This narrative voice, we later find, is the omniscient one we readers recognize, but with a deepened dimension I will leave you to discover.(I found a similar approach in Wilton Barnhardt's novel "Gospel" years ago, and it works as well here as it did there.)
Because of and not in spite of Carter's weaknesses, I cringed at and cheered him on, as a caddish fop, but also a struggling dharma practitioner, engaging with Mia's own formidable belief system. (Even if she claims to volunteer with a "Jesuit nun," inaccurately.) He grew up wondering what many may in a rather worldly, vaguely Christian upbringing: "Where was I before I was born? Why does my body feel like a guest house?" (51) He meets Mia at a Tibetan retreat at a former Catholic monastery upstate. She "possesses the milky-white skin and praying mantis beauty of someone who haunts museum archives and listens to Chopin while baking bread." (65)
Kachtick has a challenge in giving us a twenty-six year-old determined to wait for Mr. Right. She regards sex as sacred, so much that it is worth the wait to make it a sacrament. She disagrees with what she regards as a Buddhist contempt for the world and the flesh: "The work of heaven is material, the work of hell is entirely spiritual." (83) She then bums one of Carter's cigarettes, a sign of her own links to the body. They debate their differences and find similarities. They discuss Thomas Aquinas, cite Thomas Merton, and mull over St. Francis. Then, they make out. "She can't decide whether God has sent you into her life as a test or a gift." (88)
The tension within Carter goes beyond the bedroom, as he courts Mia, to a degree, while after she goes back to school, he beds others more compliant, if less intriguing. Later, as his Morocco jaunt brings him and her into conflict over their relationship, he reflects: "You'd long fancied yourself as a talented juggler of pleasure and ethics" (216)-- but this balancing act fails, as he must face what his teacher, Christopher Wolf (a skillfully depicted, poignantly captured character), warns him of: for bachelors perhaps in particular, the abyss where middle-aged lust leads into fear.
As the Buddha taught, drinking saltwater never quenches one's thirst. Whether in a New York City nightclub or binging on Entenmann's cookies, prowling for porn DVDs or amassing more gadgets, seducing tourists in Mexico or dealing with a temperamental model or vain windsurfer on a shoot, Carter faces his demons, even if disguised as long-legged angels: "you're like an alcoholic who punishes himself by drinking more." (232)
The novel takes a daringly imaginative twist. I feared Kachtick would let me down, but he does a deft fake-out and save and he pivoted gracefully, in more ways than one. If you lack a grounding in Buddhism, some of this novel may stall, but as a committed Buddhist himself, Kachtick's trying to merge his own compassion into a novel that entertains and instructs. He may switch to the former mode, almost as in a script made for Hollywood, later on, as if to make up for the earlier discussions that Mia or his teacher, Christopher, have, but for a thoughtful story that demonstrates right and wrong in scenes that take place in the bedroom or bar as well as on retreat or in meditation, this fairly conveys what a modern urban seeker, Catholic or Buddhist, may face when testing their faith against their works. Kachtick wants a wide audience for this novel, so he accommodates all these elements.
I will leave it for a reader to discover where the plot roams as Mia and Carter arrive in Morocco. The second half accelerates, and the pace moves rapidly. Conflicts thicken as the spiritual collides with the social, the Third with the First World.
Kachtick's to be commended for his energy and his range, and with Christopher as well as Mia and Carter, he creates characters you care about, no matter their own weaknesses, which endear them more rather than make them contemptible. He makes out of our urban, unhinged, dehumanized, web-obsessed, consumer-driven, sex-and-drug-and-media hookups a tale of morals and choices as profound as that of Henry James, if far more fun for me to read, as it's branded in the latest (as of 2002!) fashions, gizmos, and labels. (Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 3-6-11. See review by my friend Tony Bailie on his "Ecopunks"blog. )