“…a secondhand messiah would carry her cross to Calvary: for most proxies are women, for most women are proxies for men.”
Vicarious redemption. The backward if not completely amoral belief that one can pay for the sins or crimes of someone through the punishment or even death of another, no more potently embodied than in the body of Christ nailed to the cross, paying for the past present future of an entire species no less. Otherwise known as a scapegoat, this is Bronze Age desert justice if it’s justice at all.
And yet, within the borderline theocratic nation of the United States, Richardson imagines the realistically dystopian law of holy reform in which a family member may serve the prison time or even the death penalty instead of the actual accused, an idea brilliant in its ostensible simplicity: “Only a first-degree murderer convicted of one count of murder of an adult from a different family is open to the initiative […] and the family of the victim must approve the proxy option, for they are always of the faith, though they don’t have to be, nor does the family of the offender….”
In this case, an unnamed Black man serves the sentences on behalf of his wrongly-convicted nephew, surviving death row and dealing with the psychological aftermath of this traumatic experience. A potent quote included in the novel is from Camus: “…for capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal deed, however calculated, can be compared; for there to be an equivalency the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and who from that moment onward had confined him at his mercy for months; such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
Once he’s released, he goes to stay in a cabin with an unnamed Asian woman who is being pressured by her toxic mother to become a proxy for her deadbeat brother, the mother’s favorite. So here we have two broken characters each with their own overlapping experiences vis-à-vis the proxy initiative.
While the themes explored in this slim volume are important and as relevant as ever, from systemic racism to for-profit prisons and more, the execution (pun unintended) leaves something to be desired. Richardson is certainly capable of evocative prose, such as the opening scene in which the protagonist’s cellmates geld themselves and shove their testes through their door slots or this “…somewhere in that dry and loud and dusty city two other women were ripping their wombs out and wrapping them around their heads to carry the ghosts of their dead around like buckets of water from the river….” The latter haunting image in relation to the Asian woman’s lost—drowned—child. I wanted more of this strong writing. But the biggest sin in need of a messiah is the superabundance of “for” in lieu of “because,” with multiple instances of this grammatical structure crowding the pages. Here’s an example:
“…for his sober self would be that older boy who had long stopped pretending to be retarded, and who was now saying to this shivering self, this man, If you cannot forgive him—in reference to the third self, the one who is still in prison, waiting to be snapped back like a rubber band—then we are all lost, for on that first regional bus, desperate for some solid sleep—he had been merely drifting in and out of it before then—he had taken his sister’s sedative and was now wide awake and feeling feebly delirious, shaking and shivering, for an inferno of sugar was decalibrating his brain, a chemical storm tipping the balance, and even the galloping guilt of having cursed-out close friends couldn’t distract him with compunction, remorse, for that would’ve required a certain degree of self-awareness, for even when he was on the third bus he was still too damn primitive to be abashed, for the regional buses had all been moving so slowly and deliberately that the whole goddamn trip was like some long dreary journey….” and so on [bold mine].
Richardson has a penchant for sentences on the longer side, although not quite as breathless as, say, Saramago or Krasznahorkai. Whether long or not, this reader wishes he would diversify the structure of those sentences and find even more potent imagery, of which there is some in Messiahs, make no mistake. This being a second novel, there’s plenty of opportunity to chart the author’s growth.
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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.