Excavating John


The Book of John
Kate Niles
225 pages, softcover: $22.85.
O Books, 2010.

John Gregory Wayne Thompson, the eponymous hero of Kate Niles' second novel, The Book of John, moves between the southwest Colorado desert and the cold beaches of Washington's Neah Bay, in the process retracing his personal life and loves.

An archaeologist, John is 50 years old, unhappy with his marriage and career, and struggling with a learning disability that makes it hard for him to express himself clearly, not only in writing but in every facet of his daily life. We meet him in the fog and rain of Washington's coast, where he has fled to ponder the disturbing implications of his latest archaeological find. In a thousand-year-old kiva near the San Juan River, he and his partners unearthed human bones that had apparently been roasted and eaten. He retreats to the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay, where his friend, George, a member of the tribe, provides a cabin in which John can hide from the world while he begins to write a report about his discovery.

The Book of John may sound a bit grim, but Niles leavens the story throughout with laugh-out-loud humor. When John leaves Neah Bay to present his group's findings at an archaeologists' conference, he and George communicate by e-mail. The best humor here, as in all good literature, tiptoes close to the edge of tragedy. George writes:

"We all lack initiation. We used to have it until you guys came along. And you white guys seem to have no clue about that. You do it all wrong.... For example, Everest. Everest???!! What the FUCK is THAT??? Guys in Spandex overachieving their way up a peak. Spare me."

Threaded through the archaeological mystery is another, more personal quest -- that of John's attempt to understand his dying Marine father, a Roman Catholic who spoke little and gave even less away during his life after World War II. John's father left diaries and photographs from Iwo Jima, where his grisly discoveries parallel John's own in the kiva at Tin Cup Wash.

The novel's epigraph is taken from the New Testament: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness," John 1:23. It speaks not only for John Gregory Wayne Thomas but for the rest of us as well. Niles has given John's character so much humanity, and vulnerability, that the reader readily accompanies him on his search to understand not only cannibalism but the larger enigmas of human behavior. It is not an easy quest; in southwest Colorado, the skull he unearths seems to laugh at him: "No one's a Noble Savage, John-Boy. Not a one of us. Hah hah hah." But even though John might be crying in the wilderness, he's not lost, nor, with Niles' sensitive guidance, are the readers of her novel.

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