Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Book Review: The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merrill (Whitney Finalist)
Author: Kieth Merrill
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: Whitney Finalist
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 31
Thomas Hall is a jerk. He's a hotshot painter who never visits his aging father, refuses to get into serious romantic relationships, fires his manager on a weekly basis, and needs huge commissions to keep up with his tastes for fast boats and even faster cars. He's also a serious talent, who seems to have sold out to the Man-- banking on huge mural projects painting showgirls on the walls of hotels in Las Vegas.
Hall ends up working simultaneously on two very different projects-- one an ode to Charles Darwin in the science museum in San Francisco, and one portraying Jesus performing acts of healing at a children's hospital across town. Hall initially feels more drawn to the science museum project-- he is an agnostic, after all, but museum politics interfere with the job and Thomas finds himself working for a guy who is an even bigger jerk than he is, a guy who won't stop at blackmail to get what he wants. Thomas feels unequal to the Jesus job-- he knows all about religious art, and he knows enough to know that he doesn't know Jesus enough to do his work credit, which is what the rich benefactor requires. But through the influence of his family, his manager, the kids at the hospital, and one very special hospital employee, he opens his heart.
In a lot of ways, The Evolution of Thomas Hall reminds me of the writing of The DaVinci Code, with a lot less fighting and hiding, and if Robert Langdon opened himself up for conversion. Both books real with the intersections between religion and art. Merrill's background as a filmmaker is evident-- this is a book that could be a film. It also reminds me of The DaVinci Code in the way that it's written-- it would be quick-paced if it weren't for all the details. However, there's a level of complexity to the plot and the narrative that's absent in the other General category finalists, as well as attention to detail in the editing process. This feels more professional than the other books I've read, if that makes sense.
A few more things-- The Evolution of Thomas Hall is not a Mormon book, despite being published by Shadown Mountain, a Deseret Book imprint. While many of the characters are religious, none is overtly LDS. The same is true of both The Walk: Miles to Go, and I presume it might be true of The Wedding Letters since last year's Jason Wright book was like this. As someone who writes Mormon characters and wants to make them accessible to a wider audience, I'm interested in reading works that sort of do the opposite-- Mormon authors who use non-Mormon characters for the purpose of inspiration.
The Goodreads summary of The Evolution of Thomas Hall says "he finds himself torn between illustrating a mural on the origins of man for a natural history museum--a tribute to Darwin--and illustrating the miracles of Jesus for a display inside a children's hospital called the Healing Place. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Thomas must dig deep within himself to believe beyond his doubts as he wrestles with that elusive something called faith. Then he meets a young, critically ill girl named Christina. Her haunting past and undeviating faith will test the very soul of Thomas and that of every reader." When I read that I sighed a great big sigh. I didn't want to read a book about the showdown between science and religion. I prefer to believe that my belief in both can comfortably co-exist. But I didn't find the portrayal to be as black and white as I expected (it is true, however, that the only truly bad guy in the book is the Darwinist).
Finally, on page 419 (yes, this is a brick of a book), Thomas Hall says, "Words and pictures are very different things and art must speak for itself. For once in my life I sincerely hope what this art is about speaks louder than the art itself." I believe that Merrill feels that same way about The Evolution of Thomas Hall, and I think that it shows, both in the attention to detail the book has received and in the over message of inspiration he hopes to achieve.