I’ve pondered now for several days on how to review Chris Well's Tribulation House. It’s one of the most unique books I’ve read, both in scope and in style. About the best generic descriptor I think I can muster is “compassionate satire”. Is that a curious mix, or what? Let me take it a piece at a time.
First, the scope.
It’s really hard to recap the story in a tidy little package. Mr. Well entertains a variety of social, spiritual and personal issues through a network of loosely, but definitely, connected subplots. I know that sounds rather complicated, like you could get lost in its intricacy. And it is intricate. But you won’t get lost. He does such a great job of undergirding the network with solid writing that mapping the characters and their dilemmas—oh yes, they all have dilemmas—flows quite smoothly.
Okay, an example: The first line of the synopsis on the back cover was enough for me to take it to the checkout counter. “It’s not the end of the world--which could be a problem...” I mean, how do you not read a book with that kind of introduction? In this subplot, Mark Hogan has bought into his pastor’s carefully calculated conclusion that Jesus is coming back in less than two months. On October 17, 2007, to be exact. At 5:51 am, to be even more exact. That’s all well and good, but it does present him a quandary. You see, Mark Hogan wants a boat. He’s always wanted a boat. Now it’s too late…or is it? Of course not. All it takes is a quick loan from his friendly neighborhood Mafia shark to secure him his dream craft. Naturally, he won’t have to pay back the loan, for he’s about to be raptured—and everybody knows the Mafia is going to be ‘left behind’. Well, the fact that you’re reading this review is proof enough of his pastor’s miscalculation. Now Mr. Hogan is faced with an impossible debt, and kneecaps in imminent threat of extinction at the hands of Mob thugs. Oh, the dilemma is resolved, but not how you might expect.
Other characters include Charlie Pasch, a police detective who stumbles through areas of service at his church until he finds his niche in the most unexpected way; Tom Griggs, Charlie’s detective partner, who is estranged from his father, and whose story ends up harboring the final and most poignant twist in the entire book; Hank Barton, another church member running for a vacant city council seat, with all the campaigning trials and tribulations you might expect (and some you might not); Ross Cleaver and Bill Lamb, a bumbling pair of Mob thugs who have their own issues—well, it just goes on.
Second, the style.
After reading Tribulation House, I envisioned Mr. Well's tongue so firmly planted in his cheek that I feared he may never be able to enjoy solid food again. The number of times I found myself laughing out loud is surpassed only by the number of times I found myself nodding my head and smiling. The satirical element elicited the former response, the compassion the latter. Gifted storytelling!
Mr. Well employs a clipped style of narration that may catch you a little off guard at first, but you’ll get used to it. It’s very effective in delivering quick punches of plot, and you’ll appreciate it in that context. In my estimation, though, it may be a bit overused; that is, applied in passages that require no such rhetorical device to push them along. But, again, the story is well worth any minor stylistic distraction you may encounter. Indeed, it may not bother you at all.
If chuckling at yourself doesn’t come easy, you may have a more difficult time with Tribulation House. It will stomp on your toes, like any good satire. But keep reading. As the story unfolds, you’ll discover Mr. Well's stomping shoes to be so generously padded with compassion, the pain becomes quite bearable.
If you’re a Christian who can laugh at yourself, make this the next book on your reading list. If you aren’t, make this the next book on your reading list; you’ll surely be one by the time you’ve finished.
Tribulation House was just plain ‘really, really good’. Bravo to Mr. Well!