The Pale King – Chapter 6

Dear Dave,

I promised myself when I started this blog nearly two years ago that I would not write a Letter in which I just gush on and on about how much I love one of your stories or essays.  I didn’t want to come across as the obsessed fan that annoyingly puts you and your writing on this pedestal of deification.

Well, screw that.  I love §6 of The Pale King;[1] it is quite possibly in strong contention for my all-time favorite of your stories / chapters / vignettes.[2] So I’m going to break my self-imposed rule here and just gush on and on about why I like this story so much.

There are a number of reasons, but they all center on the role that Lane Dean Jr.’s faith plays in this story.  As I think I said in my first Letter in response to this story, this is probably the most real and raw and genuine portrayal of the Christian faith that I can recall in fiction.  It seems that most authors I have read go one of two ways in dealing with matters or faith and those who practice their faith.  On one hand, Christians and their faith are often caricatured and stereotyped and set up for mockery and ridicule.  Or on the other hand, the Christian’s faith usually acts as a sort of deux ex machina much like Popeye’s can of spinach that gets him out of even the tightest of jams.

In §6, Lane’s faith is neither.  I don’t sense any sort of mockery of his faith in the story, nor does a simple prayer solve this very difficult dilemma for him.  He wrestles with his sin and his faith and wants a bailout.  “He’d promised God he had learned his lesson.  But what if that, too, was a hollow promise, from a hypocrite who repented only after, who promised submission but really only wanted a reprieve?” (40). He seeks comfort and forgiveness and answers from his God, but only finds guilt and self-condemnation.  He overintellectualizes and overspiritualizes the issue, only making the situation and the decision he must make even more difficult to face.

I think that this raw and real depiction of his internal struggles shows a great deal of respect for both the young man of faith as well as the God in which he believes.  It respects the difficulty and complexity of the situation.  He has committed a sin by having premarital sex with Sheri, resulting in an unexpected pregnancy.  And this is not the type of thing that a trip to the confession booth or a night of prayer and fasting can all of a sudden make the problem go away.  This is a real dilemma with no easy answers or solutions.  I appreciate that you didn’t oversimplify things.

I also appreciate the respect this shows for the God of his faith.  In much of the Christian fiction I have read the author takes on the role of God, using the characters as pawns through which to teach the reader some sort of moral lesson.  I have always found this a bit presumptuous on the author’s part.[3]  How is s/he to know why God allows things to happen? And how is s/he to know how God would respond to a young man’s impassioned prayers?  How can we truly know the mind of God, much less make God a mere character in our fiction?

For Lane, no matter how hard he prays and no matter how many times he and Sheri talk through the situation, no answers come to him.  Even though the heavens do not open up and no voice from heaven tells him what to do regarding this unexpected pregnancy, he does have a “moment of grace” that provides him an epiphany more important than an easy solution.  He realizes that “he was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men… he had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus might see them – as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature” (42).

I can’t think of a better summation of the human condition than those lines.  You nailed it, Dave.

So thank you for §6, for its honest portrayal of a young man trying to reconcile his very abstract faith with a very real problem, and for its perfect description of the human condition: “broken and split off… [and] blind but groping.”

[1] This story was first published in The New Yorker as “Good People” and is also the subject of Letter 18.

[2] If asked to do so, I would probably name my top five short stories / vignettes – and this is certainly open to change as I am still quite limited in my reading of the entire canon – as (in no particular order): “Good People,” “Brief Interview #46,” “Forever Overhead,” “Little Expressionless Animals,” and §46 of TPK (The Meredith Rand / Shane Drinion chapter).

[3] The Second Commandment forbids making a “graven image” of God or any other deity; I wonder if this extends to the images of God we create in the stories we tell and write.


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