Strange and short, straddling realism and fable, Standing at the Crossroads by Charles Davis tells the tale of Ishmael, his encounters, his adventures, and, above all, his love for literature. Employed as “The Walking Librarian,” he cuts a muscular figure from the heavy books he carries from village to village. For now, his books lay buried in a dry well and he finds himself on a journey with a strident woman named Kate.
Ishmael grew up in the harsh land of an unnamed African nation, now a failed state filled with militias sporting anemic acronyms and engaging in atrocities. One of the most fearsome militias is the Warriors of God. They use horses, trucks, and helicopters to commit their crimes against humanity. In the end, that is what Ishmael seeks to protect with his books, his stories, and his ethos: humanity. He sees the foibles of Fr. Gianni, a missionary who taught both him and his friend, Jemal. Ishmael makes short order of Fr. Gianni’s hectoring and Jemal’s eventual slide into Islamic fundamentalism. “Jemal and I had barely spoken since the business about paradise’s sanitary arrangements for his private parts, but I would have liked to say goodbye. When we next met, he was a Warrior of God and I was the Story Man.” Ishmael’s naïve, literalist interpretation of Jemal’s wishes for Paradise hides a rapier wit intent on deflating the pomposities and absurdities that surround him. This isn’t the usual snark that permeates us today, but a means of survival. In an earlier scene, Ishmael recites Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to some Warriors of God sitting in a small group. They don’t know how to respond, since the poem is gibberish, a made-up nonsense language. It holds in stark relief their perversion of religion into rote memorization of a sacred text and using it to attack “the lips and lips below,” Ishmael’s description of their sexual atrocities.
The Warriors of God are not the only targets of Ishmael’s wit. During his journey with Kate, a student activist, he slowly falls in love with her. But he cannot reconcile himself with her strident belief that exposing the atrocities to the world will make this unnamed country a better place. Africa has been a familiar battleground for missionaries, merchants, and conquerors. Each has sought to exploit the continent in their own way, sometimes in concert with each other. Ishmael’s skepticism and cynicism belong to one who has seen well-intentioned forces come and go, rise and fall, and ebb and flow. In the parlance of our time, “Been there. Done that.”
The pair becomes a trio when they inadvertently adopt a child named Mara, orphaned by the Warriors of God. Ishmael, Kate, and Mara could resemble some modern sociopolitical version of the Holy Family. This is where Davis excels. Instead of turning the three into a makeshift imitation of an obvious trope, they inhabit an ambiguous space between the eternal and the quotidian. The narrative approaches both the mythical and the realistic without settling in either. Landscapes get described with realistic sensual details while Ishmael exhibits characteristics of an Everyman and a ripped-from-the-headlines true-life individual, straight out of some Nicholas Kristof editorial one reads with their Sunday coffee.
This novel also tells a tale of booklust. Throughout this brief story, under two hundred pages, it buckles under the weight of Western Literature. It is rare that a book feels longer than it really is … and in a good way. The only other book that gave me such a reaction, another tale of booklust, was Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. It is this booklust, this promiscuous desire to read, to know, to consume, that gives this book shards of hope and comedy amidst the war, carnage, atrocity, and hate. While Ishmael would recuse himself from the status as the book’s hero, the real hero of these pages is literature itself. Stories, books, characters, and adventures we tell ourselves. It is a means to preserve our humanity, our sanity, and ourselves, a bulwark against barbarism, literalism, and the narrow mind.