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Reviewed by Heather R.
"...an impressive undertaking, and Lemmons is very creative in weaving together parts of each story with his own modern-day characters..."
Thom Lemmons' Blameless explores the perennial literary and existential questions of why the blameless suffer and what, if any, responsibility God has in these situations. Lemmons chooses two literary classics to survey this terrain: the Biblical book of Job and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. This is an impressive undertaking, and Lemmons is very creative in weaving together parts of each story with his own modern-day characters, who exist in the vividly depicted world of academe. He has several good insights and deep thoughts to share with readers. Unfortunately, for this reader, Lemmons bit off more than I could chew in trying to combine these two classics.
My confusion as a reader lies with the characterization of our modern-day Job as something of an Arthur Dimmesdale. The fact is, however, that these two literary characters aren't much alike at all. Yes, they both suffered. But Job was blameless (at least of the sins his friends chastised him about) while Dimmesdale was not. Therefore it seems odd to give Joe Barnes so many of Dimmesdale's qualities of passivity, angst, and wishy-washyness, and not enough of Job's characteristics of forthrightness, boldness, and standing up for himself. As it is, Joe B's nonchalant acceptance of the bad turns his life takes perpetuates the idea that Job did nothing about his situation - when in actuality he repeatedly and boldy demanded a reckoning with God.
In addition, the God character, Doctor Alexis Hartnett, Joe B's dean, is not very God-like. First she is indecisive and paralyzed about defending Joe against unfounded accusations; then she is downright pushy. I don't see God as acting in either fashion in the book of Job. Yes, He waits a long time to speak up - but not because He was undecided. And when He finally makes His big speech, His condemnation of Job's friends for their accusations is deserved. This behavior in Hartnett comes across as bullying.
Of course, analogies and allegories are always less than perfect. I will say that the Satan character, Hartnett's administrative assistant, Lucy (Lucifer), succeeds in being appropriately manipulating, charming, and self-serving. And Joe B's friends are about as ineffective as Job's are. Another device that works quite well to further discuss the themes of guilt, innocence, and suffering is including snippets of Joe B's grant proposal regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan guilt complex.
Lemmons includes a Note to Readers at the end of the book, and his explanations clarify much of what he was trying to do and makes the novel more intriguing - especially for a discussion group. For that reason, I think the Note would be better placed in the front of the book. Readers may enjoy the novel more when they know up front all the themes and styles Lemmons is exploring.
One aspect that is not covered in Lemmons's Note is his decision to make both God and Satan female. In fact, why are all the females in Joe B's life so aggressive? Alexis, Joe B's current love interest, makes all the first moves; Kim, the student from his past pushes for the inappropriate relationship; and Sophia, his current colleague, also tries to force a relationship. And, of course, Lucy is devilishly trying to manipulate his downfall. Is this the Arthur Dimmesdale effect again? It certainly doesn't seem to come from the book of Job in which one woman has one line in 42 chapters.
Thom Lemmons's Blameless is an ambitious attempt to explore blameless suffering in a modern context. I recommend this book for high school or college courses in American Literature or The Bible as Literature for its intriguing references and theme development. More sophisticated church reading groups may also find it intellectually stimulating.
Heather R. Hunt is a business editor in Connecticut. For fun she reads, writes, cheers on the Red Sox, and enjoys tennis and cycling. She also co-leads a local tea party and enjoys holding government officials and media outlets accountable. Check out her blogs, The View from Stonewater and Connecticut for Sarah Palin.