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The Hierophant of 100th Street by Cullen Dorn

Hierophants are persons who interpret sacred or esoteric mysteries. The psuedo-Christian, clairvoyant gnostic-likes of Madame Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce, Deepak Chopra; or, in today's Oprah-endorsed parlance, Eckhart Tolle, perhaps, could rightly be called hierophants. New Age avatars. Mediums. Mystics with a message (and usually a new book) for sale.

Cullen Dorn is one such mystic. The title of his debut novel refers to our ever-increasingly enlightened (as the novel progresses) protagonist, Adam Kadman, introduced to us as being, at the age of seventeen, living in the most dangerous of New York neighborhoods --100th Street-- during the mid-sixties, "quite the savant for his age ... nostalgic for something he could not grasp."

We can conclude after finishing the novel, if we make it that far (and keeping the prologue in mind too) that what Adam was nostalgic for was his latest pre-birth state in a bright-lit world of peace and happiness (if you've been through the visitor's center at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, you'll understand Dorn's pre-existent sentiment), where he's educated and healed from all his former lives.

Another, more iffy interpretation could be made that Adam was nostalgic for the relationship with his son Chance/Dion (who technically, in a linear time sense, hadn't been born yet into "the expression of carnal life,") and who despite having been born into Adam's lifetime twice under the names "Chance" and "Dion," was really the same son reincarnated, the same son progressing and evolving along his higher spiritual path. Huh? Did you follow all that? Me neither. As far as I know, Cullen Dorn is not affiliated nor related to (at least in this present "carnal life") to Shirley MacLaine. Though this didactic novel makes one wonder for sure.

When Dorn's not pontificating his mish-mash of weird religious philosophy through his preachy protagonist, Adam, which unfortunately, covers most of the latter half of the novel, he sure can write. Repeat: Cullen Dorn can write! Had he merely written his novel, rather than preached his spiritual thesis through his character, Adam, what a wonderful book this would be. Listen to Dorn describe a 100th Street tenement hallway, "the odor of urine against the walls packed a wallop similar to ammonia." Note the rhythm and alliteration -- the "r" sound and "w" and "l" and "m" in sweet succession -- in this succinct line and be reminded of the twentieth century's master linguist and master at alliteration, William H. Gass. But that's not all. Regarding the seemingly omnipresent nefariousness of 100th Street in the sixties, Dorn writes: "it was believed that one could spit in any direction and hit the Grim Reaper." Funny and dark. Or, "...when you see death for the first time out in the street, something inside you indelibly diminishes..." In fact, the first fifty pages of The Hierophant of 100th Street reads like an anthology of famous quotes:

"From one window came an explosion of unbridled opinion,"

"ugly shadows of urban existence,"

"atrium of anguished lives,"

and, diagnosing the character of Adam's mother's latest boyfriend, Dorn masterfully composes:

"Always quick to superfluous invectives, he became, in time, extremely abusive, generating negativities nonstop -- a hateaholic, always damning someone, something or other." Powerful stuff!

When Dorn remains down and dirty with the thugs and street hustlers and prison inmates, he shines. He's got the dialects, racial tensions, and inner city nightmarescapes down pat, a visual moral wasteland acrid with evil deeds, reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.

But can the excellent quality writing of the novel's first half overcome the disappointing fizzle of the didactic second half? I posit, regrettably, no.

Dorn, when it comes to didactic, cannot pull of what, say, an Umberto Eco or Flannery O'Connor accomplished in their didactic fictions; he cannot do so because Dorn manipulates his characters behavior and beliefs in a manner akin to how the writers of Touched By An Angel predictably manipulated theirs. To the degree that coincidence frequently occurs in Dorn's novel, is the degree to which incredulity frequently occurs in his readers (at least in this reader). And that's a shame, because Dorn has got potential. Worse, Adam Kadman begins sounding a lot like Dorn's own personal mouthpiece for New Age advertisement and advancement. Adam (not to mention the plot, which I won't mention except to say, he heard an inner voice, saw a sign, and entered his higher consciousness) loses credibility, believability, and the promising artistry witnessed repeatedly in the first half of the novel, becomes in the second half the tacky artifice of a political campaign designed to proselytize the reader. Remember Chick Publications? And as an optimistic reader usually willing to suspend disbelief, I'm not sold at all on what Cullen Dorn or, at best, Adam Kadman, seems to be selling.

Does Adam Kadman remain a real life character to the novel's starry-eyed conclusion, as he appears so early on in the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, or does he metastasize into some well-meaning, though nonetheless propagandish metaphysical messiah, an unrelenting (and annoying) John Galt of Cullen Dorn's creation, more ideology than human intellect, more arcane crackpot evangelist than true flesh-and-blood personality? I would argue the latter, of course, though I'm not so down on this book, primarily because of it's incredible linguistic beginnings, that I'd make the claim future readers should not read it and come to their own conclusions, especially if they don't mind being preached at by a tough guy guru who makes his home ... somewhere in the Twilight Zone.


Rebecca Glenn said…
Oy vey! I never heard of this guy. I don't know that I'd be able to see the good writing for the dreck...not a big fan of New Age mysticism and all that that implies.
EnriqueFreeque said…
Me neither.

But Dorn sucks you in with the stellar gritty streetwise prose right off the bat and then, after you've taken the bait, nearly half way in, lowers the New Age boom on you. It was an LT early reviewer copy a few years back, so I felt I had to finish it; otherwise I doubt I would have. I'm going back through a lot of old LT reviews from '08, revising, updating, attempting to get them to a level I can be somewhat satisfied with now. Here on the blog they hopefully read like new!

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