In the war of the body versus the mind, there can be no winner. The
two are inextricably linked; to defeat either defeats both.
Nevertheless, the characters in Duff Brenna's latest novel, THE
ALTAR OF THE BODY, all seem to be ignoring one side to champion the
Buck Root, an ex-poet long since freed of the burden of talent, has
given up his dreams of wordsmithing to become a sculptor of flesh
--- a bodybuilding evangelist hawking health and eternal youth in
the form of pills called Nova Life. He's transformed himself from
bullied geek into Mr. Los Angeles, Mr. Philadelphia, Mr. Chicago,
Mr. Mount Olympus, and most recently, Mr. Minneapolis Thighs. He
enters the novel like an ox, sweating, grunting and pushing a
broken-down Lincoln up the street to the home of his cousin, George
--- who is unprepared, to say the least.
If Buck Root's body is an altar, George's is a temple in ruins.
Balding, graying and nursing a potbelly, George is a sweet-natured
mama's boy who likes the gentle routine of his life in Medicine
Lake, Minnesota, watching TV, drinking beer, occasionally spending
a few rushed minutes with a local stripper in the back of her van.
He's content, mostly --- until Buck shoves that Lincoln and its
volatile contents into his life.
Inside the car are Joy, Buck's impossibly sexy girlfriend; her
ancient mother, Livia, who's living in the paperback western she's
reading; and their dog, Ho Tep. George, in a way, falls in love
with each of them and begins to realize what he's lost by letting
himself go numb for so long.
The author's most stunning accomplishment with ALTAR is in
sketching a cast of larger-than-life characters who do and say
preposterous things and then, gradually, by revealing layer after
layer of their souls, making them real and complex and utterly
moving. "Everybody I know is multilayered," says George toward the
end of the novel, and it's true: The cartoonish characters
introduced 300 pages earlier have gained an astonishing
Brenna's novel addresses the frailty of flesh, our inevitable doom,
the power and shortcomings of love and art, and the bonds of
family. It's a fun read from start to finish, delightfully
over-the-top in all the right places, yet full of deeply touching
moments. The characters are ravaged and torn by the choices they
make; those who survive intact are the ones who learn they can't
choose only a part of themselves but must embrace the whole. It's a
worthy lesson in a beautiful package.
Reviewed by Becky Ohlsen on January 20, 2011
The Altar of the Body: A Novel