This beautifully written novella proves less is more. Eloquent and elegant, with stunning metaphors and rhythmic cadences that alternate between short, declarative sentences that expand with ironic meaning and lyrical descriptions of nature that flesh out spiritual resonance, Walk On, Bright Boy invites reading out loud—which in many ways is its literary heritage. Whoever you are, Charles Davis (an author’s note teases out long-time wandering in exotic places around the world, a love of walking and the fact that this is his first published novel), keep at it (a second novel, Walking the Dog is due out next year). It’s a good guess, however, that Walk On, Bright Boy—a real occasion to use the overworked expression “tour de force”—will remain unique. A suggestion: don’t read it straight through. Take it, like good wine, slowly, savoring the taste of its descriptive prose. It is not to be rushed—much like walking for pleasure. The experience, not the destination, is all. A second suggestion: if you happen to come across a so-called review of this book in Publishers Weekly—toss it.
An unnamed priest, obviously having reached a powerful position in the Church, is dictating his life story to an amanuensis he will not identify, not knowing if his words will be read by the Lords of the Inquisition who will soon take his life. It’s not that at 80 the priest has become a Gnostic: He has always been a skeptic of pomp and circumstance. He has never forgotten a traumatic event in his childhood that provided him with a touchstone of how to value truth, justice and beauty, an experience that is at the center of the novel. It will be said that the book is an allegory, a parable, a timeless tale of betrayal and faith, guilt and redemption, compromise and survival, and that its setting, 17th century Spain, invites an anti-clerical reading of the hypocrisy, cruelty and insidious power of organized religion to enforce moral absolutes. But as the narrator says, a story is not only content but language and form. In this regard Walk On, Bright Boy is not just the recollections of a Jesuit priest who feels he betrayed a friend but a poetic celebration of the sensual world that friend introduced him to—the sunlight that lay on the mountains “as if sedated by its own heat”; dawn grazing the skyline “with a thin rime of oyster gray light”; valleys “creased in complex folds of verdigris and smudged crape.”
Walk On, Bright Boy, which takes its title from an Arabic text, is about understanding the universe by observing its wonders, especially as these are seen and felt in childhood—a time of wonder, magic and “exploring, seeking, learning” that is all but lost to most adults. An exception proves to be the unconverted Moor who lived in the narrator’s aldea, or remote village. The Moor was a harmless, unlettered infidel in a region all but conquered by the Church, a pied piper whose walks into the mountains and along the village waterway delighted the children who followed him, for his tales and tricks. He was, in other words, the perfect scapegoat for Inquisitors would hedge in God with “dark ledgers of regulation” and a “cult of death.” Now, decades later, after a long and successful clerical career, the priest “confesses,” but the Inquisitors, as he sarcastically observes, will not understand. His con-fession is in the etymological sense of the word, keeping faith—with the intuitions of his childhood. To the disgust of his parents and fellow villagers he had defended the Moor against the trumped up charge of being a witch, but then was slyly manipulated by a clever Inquisitor into repeating words that inadvertently condemned the Moor to death.
Davis infuses his narrative with local color (Spanish words remain untranslated), suspense and unexpected complexity (pathology in the guise of religious zeal). If the ending seems a bit obvious, about the ultimate importance of friendship, loving kindness and devotion, the message is encased in such fine writing that the story telling eclipses the story—which is the book’s theme.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace