Once in a while a great novel receives recognition for its inherent
stature. Such was the case when Eliot Pattison's debut novel THE
SKULL MANTRA won the prestigious Edgar Award. His second novel,
WATER TOUCHING STONE, would have won if THE SKULL MANTRA hadn't; I
mean, you can't keep handing the trophy over to the same guy, even
if he deserves it. But the plain and simple truth is that no one is
doing quite what Pattison is doing, and no one is doing what they
do quite as well as what Pattison is doing.
If you are by chance unfamiliar with Pattison, or either of the
aforementioned novels, you could certainly jump on with BONE
MOUNTAIN. Although BONE MOUNTAIN is a continuation of the themes
and characters introduced and explored in THE SKULL MANTRA and
WATER TOUCHING STONE, BONE MOUNTAIN stands quite well on its own,
as Pattison continues to amaze and astound with some of the most
compelling prose out there.
Pattison's protagonist is Shan Tao Lun, a former Beijing inspector
who is living in exile in Tibet. The brutal subjection of Tibet by
the Red Chinese over the last half-century is one of the great
underreported stories of our modern time; one would think that a
religious persecution resulting in the murder of over one million
human beings would be newsworthy --- I mean, if Richard Gere can
get it, anybody can --- but the silence from all quarters remains
deafening. That tapping you hear at the edge of the periphery is
Pattison, writing. Through Shan, he presents anecdotes of
unspeakable brutality, but even more importantly, examples of
quiet, heart-stopping courage in the face of adversity. It is
impossible to read of Shan and the Buddhist monks who have taken
him in without feeling admiration for his, and their, grace under
circumstance and shame for the complaints of minor inconvenience
--- dropped cell calls, traffic jams, secondhand smoke ---
occasioned by the benefits of our way of life.
BONE MOUNTAIN opens with Shan preparing to accompany a pilgrimage
to return "the jagged eye" of a venerated idol to its original
habitat, an act full of symbolic and prophetic significance. The
eye, stolen almost a century before, has been recently recovered.
What Shan is initially unaware of is that the recovery of the eye
involved its being "stolen" from a brigade of the Red Chinese army
--- and the brigade wants the stone back. When the monk leading the
pilgrimage is brutally murdered, what was once a careful, secretive
pilgrimage becomes a headlong flight from an adversary whose power
is matched only by its cruelty and ruthlessness.
Shan, at the same time, is at heart an "inspector," or
investigator. He has a love of truth, and his devotion to truth
results in his being an outcast. And that love of truth causes him
to wonder: Why is the Red Chinese army so desperate to retrieve the
stone eye? What role does an American oil company's drilling
project have, and why has a geologist from that company abandoned
the camp and fled into the mountains? And are any of these events
connected to a rumor that an ancient, venerated lama is returning
to Tibet to liberate his beleaguered nation?
Pattison gives his readers answers, true, but the beauty of his
talent is in his framing of the questions. This is a man who has a
love for the written language, and while his words flow with a
poetic verve that is by turns beatific and terrible --- depending
on his subject matter --- this is not prose that lends itself to a
hurried or cursory reading. Pattison does not satisfy accuracy at
the altar of experience. The reader comes away from each sitting
with STONE MOUNTAIN intellectually challenged and culturally
richer, as Pattison continues to explore the land, the mystery, and
the tragedy that is Tibet.
BONE MOUNTAIN continues the process of shouldering Pattison out of
genre adulation and into mainstream attention. And if he brings
attention through these novels to the plight of the Tibetan people,
then he will accomplish the task that he perhaps set out to perform
to begin with.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011