The Holyby Daniel Quinn
They knew us before we began to walk upright. Shamans called them guardians, mythmakers called them tricksters, pagans called them gods, churchmen called them demons, folklorists called them shape-shifters. They’ve obligingly taken any role we’ve assigned them, and, while needing nothing from us, have accepted whatever we thought was their due
They knew us before we began to walk upright. Shamans called them guardians, mythmakers called them tricksters, pagans called them gods, churchmen called them demons, folklorists called them shape-shifters. They’ve obligingly taken any role we’ve assigned them, and, while needing nothing from us, have accepted whatever we thought was their due – love, hate, fear, worship, condemnation, neglect, oblivion.
Even in modern times, when their existence is doubted or denied, they continue to extend invitations to those who would travel a different road, a road not found on any of our cultural maps. But now, perceiving us as a threat to life itself, they issue their invitations with a dark purpose of their own. In this dazzling metaphysical thriller, four who put themselves in the hands of these all-but-forgotten Others venture across a sinister American landscape hidden from normal view, finding their way to interlocking destinies of death, terror, transcendental rapture, and shattering enlightenment.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“The Holy should keep readers turning its pages long into the night, searching for answers.”—Rocky Mountain News
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By Daniel Quinn
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2002 Daniel Quinn
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Although only visitors and new members notice it any more, there is a brass plaque on the door of the Herman Litvak Chess Club on North Sheridan Road in Chicago. It reads:
Rascals are always sociable, and the chief sign that a man has any nobility in his character is the little pleasure he takes in others' company.
— Arthur Schopenhauer
It may be that the club's founder imperfectly understood the quotation when he chose it. Considering the almost unwavering atmosphere of gloom inside, it appears more likely that he fully intended it to confound and dispirit those who enter there. A sorrowful presence seems to haunt the dark, heavily furnished rooms, and the older members know that this is the presence of Herman Litvak himself, who put a bullet through his brain in an upstairs room one evening in 1940.
In 1954, in the club's only political crisis ever, the members voted to apply for a private-club liquor license. The losers predicted with absolute confidence that the place would turn into a hangout for bookies and pimps, but of course they were wrong. The worst that happened was that a few chess tables were replaced by massive club chairs and cocktail tables. Even when it seems that only the drinkers are on hand, a few games of chess are played, if only out of an obscure sense of obligation.
In effect, it's a social club for Jewish men of a certain temperament, and those who don't have it soon find somewhere else to spend their evenings.
Howard Scheim was an exception. He'd joined in 1991 at the age of sixty-one, a year after his wife's death, with the idea of renewing a boyhood fascination with the game. After a few nights' play, he saw it would make as much sense to buy a tennis racket and go out after Boris Becker. It was a different game from the one he remembered, and even the most casual players could crush him in a dozen moves, laughing with embarrassment, as if they couldn't quite figure out how to throttle down their own power. There was no hope at all of learning from his mistakes; he was just too far outmatched.
This didn't drive him away — far from it. To be humbled by so frivolous a mystery delighted him. He gave up playing and became a watcher, and never failed to be joyously astounded when the masters' moves were completely outside his expectations.
He knew without thinking about it that some members found him an intimidating figure: Howard the Hulk. There was nothing he could do about that. In his mid-teens, already a giant, he'd gone into the ring with the notion of becoming the next Max Schmeling. The draft board had saved him from getting his brains beaten out, but they were too late to save his face. In repose, it was the face of a thug, an assassin. A hump of scars over his left eye forced it into a sullen wink, and the casual locker-room setting and resetting of his once-delicate nose had given it the look of an outcropping of shattered rock and made him a lifelong mouth-breather.
In his line of work, there had been times enough when his menacing appearance had come in handy, and he knew well how to enhance it. When he dimmed the intelligent glitter in his eyes, rolled his lower lip out to expose his teeth, and spoke in his throat like a dog, there were few men who wouldn't take a step back from him, even now. Smiling came more naturally, and anyone who knew him at all knew he was as mild as butter, the sort of man who, born a century earlier, would have buried himself in a study house to pore over the endless mysteries of the Torah.
What made Howard acceptable — even popular — was the fact that he was a listener. Before his arrival, such a thing as conversation at the Herman Litvak Chess Club was practically unknown. This is because it's part of the temperament of those who belong there that they yearn to be heard but have no patience for listening. And so they talk — and fall silent as others talk — but there's rarely any authentic interchange of ideas among them.
At first they hardly knew what to make of a man like Howard, who not only had things to say but seemed genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. It was freakish, almost unnatural, like levitating or walking through walls. But it was also refreshing, and the members soon found themselves slyly competing for his attention. A strange subspecies of social interaction blossomed; men gathered in the lounge and sat around talking insurance, football, and the stock market like commuters on a train while waiting their turn at the club's one listener. None of them would have admitted he was there to talk to Howard the Hulk, but they became edgy if one member seemed to be monopolizing his time. "Hey," someone would shout, "give the man a break!" Meaning: Give one of us a break.
It was a rare thing for Howard to buy a drink for himself (which, on his budget, was just as well), and he thought it was very funny to become a social success at his age.
Aaron Fischer was the only one who wouldn't compete for Howard's attention. He didn't like starting a conversation with the feeling that others would soon be breathing down his neck. So he outwaited them all — a narrow, dainty man with a humorous face, and always impeccably, expensively dressed — savoring his long, expensive cigars and sipping the very special old brandy that was stocked at the bar just for him.
Aaron was as proud of his patience as other men were of their sexual prowess or business deals. While others hustled, Aaron took his time, and he credited everything to this sublime practice: his long life (he was seventy-three), his good health, and his fortune. He was one of the club's top players, but drove everyone mad with his interminable pondering of perfectly obvious moves. Legend had it that he'd once spent two minutes and forty seconds considering his response to an opening move of pawn to king four.
His approach to Howard had been no less cautious.
"Howard, tell me: Are you a religious man?"
"Howard, what do you think? Is a Jew who denies God truly a Jew?"
"Howard, do you think there is meaning to Jewish history — a sort of meaning that the rest of history lacks?"
"Howard, here is something I wonder about. As Jews, we're taught that the whole of man's interaction with God is somehow encompassed by Judaism. But Judaism is only five thousand years old, while mankind is millions of years old. What do you make of that?"
All these questions and many more like them, Aaron posed over a period of two years, and Howard began to feel he was being covertly interviewed for a job. He even wondered if Aaron was considering him as a match for some widowed or spinster relative. Although he couldn't grasp the tendency behind the questions (and had never contemplated such things himself), Howard admired the old man for asking them. It seemed like pretty deep delving for someone who, at the age of fifteen, had been an apprentice glove maker.
Characteristically, Howard would answer these questions with something like, "To be honest, Aaron, I've never thought much about that, but I'd be interested to hear what you think." The old man was well read, a rigorous thinker, and not at all inclined toward simplistic answers. In fact, though he talked for countless hours, Aaron never really answered the questions he asked. He left them hanging in the air, unresolved, and in the end Howard wasn't sure what Aaron thought about anything.
Finally, one winter night near midnight, Aaron portentously advanced a pawn in the game he'd made of their relationship. He took a sip of brandy, replaced the glass on the table between them, looked up, and said, "Howard, I'd like you to come to dinner at my house tomorrow night."
Howard the Hulk, his mouth drooping a little more than usual, stared at him in astonishment as he tried to analyze his reaction to this strange invitation.
Members rarely socialized outside the club. That's what the club was for, after all. But it wasn't just that. Within the club, social and economic lines were recognized but democratically ignored; if Aaron wielded more influence than Howard in club affairs, it wasn't because he was a millionaire but because he'd been a member for decades and Howard was a newcomer. Aaron's vote counted for no more than Howard's, but at the end of an evening, a chauffeured Cadillac whisked Aaron off to his house (or perhaps it was a mansion) in Evanston, while Howard caught a bus south to Ainslee and walked to his second-floor bedroom and bath.
It wasn't that wealth daunted him. Howard had seen too much of the world to be impressed by it or by the people who have it. Nevertheless he wondered if his comfortable relationship with Aaron could survive an encounter with his wealth.
Meanwhile, misunderstanding his hesitation, Aaron was nervously assuring him that his kitchen was strictly kosher and that his cook was a phenomenon of nature.
"I wasn't worried about that," Howard said, amused. "I'll be happy to come."
"I'm afraid I eat at an unfashionable hour, six o'clock," Aaron said. "Otherwise sometimes I don't sleep so good. Is that too early for you?"
Howard decided that, since it was Aaron's idea, Aaron should do the accommodating. "It is a bit early, for a weekday, Aaron. I keep my office open till five." For no very good reason, he added to himself.
"I don't want you to suffer a hardship for this, Howard. Just the opposite. Is seven okay?"
"That'll be fine," Howard said, understanding now that it was a business deal.CHAPTER 2
Aaron's house was indeed what Howard considered a mansion, although it stood at no great distance from either the street or its stately neighbors. It pretended to no particular architectural style he could recognize; it was just a handsome and substantial dwelling built for some rich merchant of the 1920s.
The door was opened by a woman of striking presence, reminding him of a young Olivia de Havilland. When he gave her his name, she said, "Mr. Fischer is expecting you. Will you come this way, please?" with the cool competence of an executive secretary. As they walked, he asked her if she was Mr. Fischer's personal assistant. With a faint smile, she replied that she was his personal assistant, housekeeper, and everything else, short of cook and maid-of-all-work.
"Would you mind telling me your name?"
"Not at all," she replied. "It's Ella."
The room she led him to was huge, bright, and exquisitely furnished, and he wondered if it was known in the household simply as the living room. It certainly wasn't a room where you kicked off your shoes and settled down in front of the TV with a six-pack of beer. The furniture had the glow of great antiquity and value, and a picture sprang to his mind of its being burnished daily with wads of old, velvet-soft money. The pettiness of this reaction dismayed him, and, as Aaron approached to greet him across a vast Chinese rug in luscious reds and blues, he wondered what he was going to do about it. Then, almost without the aid of his brain, his tongue handled it for him.
"You got one hell of a sexy place here, Aaron," he said, nodding appreciatively.
The old man's head jerked back as though he'd been slapped. He stopped, appraised Howard's smile, and then looked around slowly, trying to see the room through Howard's eyes. Finally he chuckled and said, "Yeah. Real sexy."
He took Howard's arm affectionately.
Howard was relieved when, after a cocktail in the living room, Aaron led him to a small, octagonal dining room built out into the backyard — practically open to the backyard by virtue of its French windows. He'd had a chilling vision of their dining in a baronial hall, at opposite ends of a furlong-wide banquet table.
"This is the breakfast room, actually," Aaron pointed out. "Entertaining in the dining room makes me feel like Count Dracula in his castle."
The meal itself, served with watchful courtesy by Ella, was unquestionably the finest Howard had ever tasted — and one of the strangest, since each dish seemed to have been chosen as much for its distinguished provenance as for its flavor. The salmon marinated in sour cream, he was told, had been created in the kitchen of a Jewish banker in Imperial Russia, one Baron Günsburg. The black bean soup with plum brandy, it seemed, had been the Baal Shem Tov's favorite.
"Rothschild's chef created this," Aaron said of the grouse stewed in red wine. When Howard raised his brows, the old man went on: "It's true. Most of the dishes named after Rothschild are fakes, but this one is for real."
When Howard cut into the fork-tender chateaubriand sautéed in dry burgundy, Aaron said, "Disraeli invented this as a young man — himself, personally. It should be topped with breast of guinea hen," he added almost guiltily, "but I thought it would be a bit much after the grouse."
"My God, Aaron," Howard protested.
The old man seemed to have nothing to say about the dessert, a concoction of strawberries in port and Cointreau, and Howard asked about it with just a touch of irony.
"I don't know exactly who invented it," Aaron said without looking up. "Sarah Bernhardt got the recipe from a Jewish family in St. Louis."
Howard grinned into his crystal goblet, knowing he'd been sandbagged.
The room in which they were served coffee and brandy glowed with rich paneling and soft lights and smelled of new leather and, of course, cigars. In Howard's imagination, it was the epitome of the room to which gentlemen retire after dinner in English novels — except that he'd never managed to imagine it so large or so elegantly appointed. He smiled at this, thinking that it takes money even to furnish a room in your imagination.
Most of three walls were solidly books: serious books — read books, though many were bound for show. Taking a tour of them, Howard saw they were all history, philosophy, and religion, with a little anthropology thrown in for light reading. It was an intimidating collection, and he was beginning to feel vaguely snubbed by it when Aaron murmured, "Come and sit down, Howard."
Perversely, he continued his survey through the T's, just to satisfy himself that there was nothing so frivolous on these shelves as a copy of War and Peace. Then he went and sat down in a gray leather chair that welcomed him like a plump, affectionate mother.
"So," he said gravely, wondering what he meant by it.
"So," the old man echoed, carefully lighting one of his long cigars. He squinted up through the smoke and said, "I'm told you're an investigator."
This was the last thing Howard expected to hear, and he tried to cover his confusion with a smile. "Yeah, Aaron. Sure. Everyone at the club knows that."
"Tell me something about it."
Howard suddenly found himself unable to speak, his throat constricted with anger. He crossed his legs and looked away in an intense examination of the bookshelves, hoping without much hope that Aaron would skip it — pretend he'd never mentioned the subject, talk about something else, ask one of his absurd questions about the nature of Jewishness or the future of the world. He didn't want to have to come to grips with his feeling of betrayal.
"What's wrong, Howard?" the old man asked after a full minute had passed.
"You want me to tell you something about what? Being an investigator?"
"What is it, Aaron? A daughter-in-law you think is cheating on your son? A servant you think is stealing the silver?"
Aaron frowned. "I don't understand, Howard. What are you talking about?"
"What I'm talking about is ..." Howard glared at him, too furious to know what he was talking about.
The old man shrank back in his chair, his eyes full of alarm, and Howard realized he was nearly snarling. He forced his face into the rough contours of a smile and said, "Just tell me what the problem is, Aaron, and I'll get on it in the morning."
Aaron looked at him with incomprehension for a moment, then groaned. "Oh my friend, forgive me. Living alone with my thoughts so much of the time ..." He waved his hands vaguely in the air. "One begins to forget what words are for. I took it for granted that you'd understand what was in my mind without my saying anything, so you got the wrong idea entirely. I apologize most humbly."
"And what was I supposed to understand, Aaron?"
"That I didn't invite you here because you're an investigator, but because you're a friend. Do you see?"
"No, Aaron, I don't."
"Howard, my God! For investigators, I got the Yellow Pages — thousands of investigators! For people I can talk to and be understood, I got you."
"Okay. So go on."
The old man puffed on his cigar and peered at him through the smoke. "Not till you're through being insulted. Is it an insult for one friend to ask another about his work?"
Howard sighed and tried to relax into the sensuous embrace of his chair. "No, Aaron, I guess not. I'm sorry. I guess I just got defensive. ... Being a private detective is no big deal. You've got to know that."
Excerpted from The Holy by Daniel Quinn. Copyright © 2002 Daniel Quinn. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Daniel Quinn is the author of Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Tales of Adam. He lives with his wife, Rennie, in Houston, Texas.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I admit that I had high hopes for this book, after reading other of Quinn's works (My Ishmael, The Story of B, After Dachau, and another short one thats name escapes me)
Anyway, it was rather interesting to read but overall story lacked any real content that you can walk away with. After I finished the book I thought, "ok, thats it" and all but forgot about it. There were certainly specific points in the book that interested me but they were so few and far between that I feel unsatisfied by the content.
Quinn is still a great author with some of the best points of view that I have come across and I appreciate his work, I just dont think that this was his best so far.
Quinn, like many writers before him, has written himself out of ideas. This book is poorly organized, inescapably incoherent, and void of the lesssons and wonderful ideas of all previous attempts. Like Jabbar, Steven King and George Foreman, Quinn should have hung em up!
Daniel Quinn truly has one of the clearest visions of our world today. This book, and all of Quinns books are extremely important and they demand attention and recognition above that of a mere "supernatural thriller." The messages in these books are what the bible should have said.
I am familiar with most of Quinn's work. It has never failed to move me. The Holy is no exception. It is a very well written and exciting book that I read in record time. It gave me, and will give you a new perspective on life, religion and the story we are all told. Have a great time reading!
Like the rest of Daniel Quinn's work, The Holy has changed my attitude about life and how I live it. As I sit here and write this review on my computer I look out my window into the forest and know there is a lot of things that exist, and occur, that can't be explained. If the mysterious don't seem mysterious to you, give The Holy a read. You never know what will happen within you and around you after.
I've read all of Daniel Quinn's books several times, and I have to say The Holy is the best. My previous favorite was After Dachau. But then, I'm a reader of novels. I wait avidly for the newest novel by an author whose work captivates me. And The Holy and After Dachau are the only Quinn books that I consider truly novels, rather than teaching novels. Sure, Quinn's thoughts and ideas are there, as they are in all his books. But they aren't spelled out for you. You have to absorb them as you live the book through the characters. I've been waiting for a book from Quinn that I can introduce to friends who are readers of novels but wouldn't touch a book that smacks of "teaching." In The Holy, I've found that book.
The Holy illuminated the spiritual side of my life, and peace and power are the gifts I have received from this great inspirational work. After reading it, I threw away all my self-help books! Thank you, Daniel Quinn.
Unlike other reviewers here, I'm a first-time Quinn reader, so I have no idea whether The Holy is his best or not, but I can tell you it's one heck of a book, a true supernatural thriller that I can only compare (favorably) to books like The Shining and Shadowland, with a cast of unforgettable characters that climb off the page right into your head. I opened it the other night after dinner, figuring I'd read till bedtime--wrong! I couldn't quit till I turned the last page at 3 a.m. If I had a couple of books this good to read every week, I'd be in heaven!
When you read Stephen King or Anne Rice or Clive Barker, you know they're only kidding. They don't really believe in demon-possessed cars, immortal vampires, or faerie worlds hidden in large carpets. When you read The Holy--a novel as fantastic, as gripping, and as terrifying as any produced by King, Rice, or Barker--you'll know that Daniel Quinn isn't kidding. In this regard (and this only), The Holy is similar to The Exorcist, another book by an author who wasn't kidding (it was based on the true story of a child's demonic possession in the 1940s). People reacted powerfully to The Exorcist, both as a book and as a film, because they perceived clearly that William Peter Blatty wasn't just giving them a fright they would later laugh about. (I've always believed The Exorcist probably brought more people to the Roman Catholic Church than The Song of Bernadette did.) Even if you aren't a believer, reading or seeing The Exorcist can make you teeter in your disbelief. Quinn's book will have the same effect on you. It will have the same effect, because you'll recognize that the supernatural realm he's exploring is not one he just made up to give you a scare. It's a realm that humans have acknowledged and taken seriously for as long as there have been humans, a realm familiar to shamans in every land, a realm discussed in the scriptures of every religion (including the Bible), a realm that was alive and thriving before the first humans walked the earth and will be alive and thriving when we're gone. The jacket notes describe the inhabitants of the realm this way: "They knew us before we began to walk upright. Shamans called them guardians, myth-makers called them tricksters, pagans called them gods, churchmen called them demons, folklorists called them shape-shifters. They've obligingly taken any role we've assigned them, and, while needing nothing from us, have accepted whatever we thought was their due--love, hate, fear, worship, condemnation, neglect, oblivion." The publisher describes this as a metaphysical thriller, and it is. But it's also much more. Like any really great book, it's one you'll definitely want to read more than once.
In THE HOLY, a private investigator who is living a dull, eventless life is offered an event. A friend needs a mystery solved: Why did people throughout history turn away from the great eternal, supernatural, omnipotent God that we meet in the major monotheisms and look to the gods of pagans for their deepest needs? Sounds like a job for a PhD in theology, but in this story, it is the task of a reluctant, regular guy. The investigation takes him across the country where he meets individuals that you probably wouldn¿t seek out for spiritual advice. Yet, as he begins to explore what these people are saying (and showing) to him, he begins to see things differently. I found myself amazed by the alternative perspectives offered by the people this man visits. I thought I may have finished the book, and then I realized THE HOLY was just beginning! Another man from another place, on an impulse, leaves his job, his home, and his family to journey into no-where. Or at least, no-where any of us have ever gone. I cannot begin to describe the places and experiences that this man encounters in his voyage into this shady, unknown world of mystery. It¿s dark, surreal, and even scary at the same time that it¿s enchanting and magical. The realizations that this man comes to about himself and about life in general will knock you light-years off your keel. The experiences and emotions these characters go through shed light on why we so often find ourselves unsatisfied and take us to places where life NEVER gets boring. The characters in this book travel intertwining roads in a master-crafted tale of how some ordinary people are presented with opportunities that lead them all over the country, and eventually to those mysterious presenters themselves! This is the shocker that will change the lives of the book¿s characters, but will also change the way we see religion, our own lives, and the world itself. If you've ever felt too familiar with life or too shelled in by the world as you know it, this book is your answer. Talk about a shaking up!!