Sun House: A Novel
When the Reformed Journal asked me to review David James Duncan’s new novel, Sun House, my response was immediate: “Respectfully, no way.” No novelist has meant more to me than Duncan, whose The River Why and The Brothers K gave voice to longings I never knew I had and offered characters who came to feel like old friends. His first novel in 31 years — thirty-one years! — was an occasion I wanted to mark privately, discussing it with a few trusted friends. After all, it might disappoint.
But after reading all 776 pages, I feel compelled to report that Sun House reads absolutely like a Duncan novel: sprawling, ambitious, imperfect, bursting with humor and sex and spiritual longing, drawing on ancient wisdom traditions of every kind and synthesizing them into nothing less audacious than a new nonreligion, which he calls Dumpster Catholicism (more on that soon). Best of all, it’s clear Duncan is having fun on the page, and, because of that, attempting a review struck me as fun too.
That little word, “fun,” in Duncan’s hands, becomes a term of immense spiritual substance. In a wonderful 2004 piece of “advice about writing advice,” he describes it as his artistic guiding star and “key to the door of the literary kingdom.” Fun, for him, contains room for playfulness, sincerity, and wild-eyed mysticism, all of which are present in Sun House. It contains room for fury about environmental despoliation and grief about violence that falls from the sky for no reason at all. It contains a sense of duty to write in service to a greater good, but also the knowledge that literary duty without playfulness is of little use to the world.
Suffering indeed falls from the sky in Sun House, first in the form of a bolt shaken loose from a mid-flight DC-8 that kills a young Mexican girl in a freak accident. Suffering takes the form of leukemia killing a child’s mother on his fifth birthday; of a father’s infidelity wreaking havoc in his daughter’s life; of capitalist greed and mindless wealth; of climate-fueled disasters; of street violence; of a teenage boy playing chicken on his bike in mid-day Portland traffic, acting out his rage against whatever deity would take his mother on his very own birthday. There’s a lot going on here.
Early on we meet Risa McKeig, the product of a broken home and a typical suburban childhood, whose ferocious intelligence does not make fitting in any easier. In college she falls headlong in love with Sanskrit mythology of pre-Modern India. In ancient verses she finds a key to making sense of the irony-and-corn-syrup-saturated world around her:
As the words entered her mind in English and her ears in Sanskrit, Risa felt what she could only describe as the main Mystery enter the room. For an unbounded moment, a Vastness breathed inside and outside her body, pervading campus and city, touching everyone and everything, near and far.
There are countless moments like this. Duncan’s The Brothers K imbues a few obscure Bible verses with stunning meaning, while also hinting at his longtime fascination with Eastern texts. In Sun House he expands this scope dramatically, drawing on sacred verses from Zen Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Sufism, the poet Gary Snyder, the Delta bluesman Son House, a secretive mountain tribe he more or less invents, the excommunicated Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, and more. He devotes pages to the Beguines of 13th and 14th century Europe, a decentralized movement of women who developed forms of communal living, voluntary poverty, economic self-sufficiency, social welfare, and contemplative spirituality. Seeking no institutional power, they grew so quickly that the church in Rome grew threatened by them and quashed them violently.
Learning about the largely untold history of the Beguines, one character concludes, “The things the Church has tossed out would make for the coolest spiritual yard sale the world has ever seen!”
Hence the birth of Dumpster Catholicism as imagined by Jervis McGraff, a wandering street saint short of stature and feeble of voice, who wanders Portland in frequently sodden red Converse sneakers conversing with inhabitants of all kinds. In his papery whisper, Jervis speaks of the “ocean strobes” that direct him to offer a blanket to one homeless resident, to point another toward a desperately needed fix, and occasionally to step dripping into a fine-dining establishment to offer a patron a word of spiritual direction they didn’t know they needed.
When his exasperated brother, TJ, asks him to explain the “Ocean” that guides him, Jervis responds: “The way your mind is, Teej, words won’t help. Your mind has its hands stuffed in its pockets as you ask to be handed a glass of Ocean. Anything I say to that mind will just fall to the floor and shatter.”
These stretches of mystical imagination: Hoo boy. They are fascinating, and they are maddening. Reading Sun House demands patience and stamina, and even with those I found myself looking forward to the chapters richer in plot and dialogue. More than once I found myself thinking, “Oof, is this another chapter ending with three pages of a character’s internal reflections?”
Duncan asks his readers to engage with more than just their critical-analytical minds. He speaks of reason as a yapping dog — useful for certain things, like filling out tax forms, but sometimes you need to tie it to a tree and listen to a quieter, deeper part of yourself.
Still, spiritual ambitions are no excuse for being boring, and Sun House is not boring. Duncan excels at various forms of salty banter, putting urbanites and rednecks, vegans and cattle ranchers, and the pious and the vulgar into charged situations and watching things play out. There are brilliant scenes of an addled graduate student trying to read Heidegger in bed beside his beautiful and more studious girlfriend. Each shift of her body yanks his mind away from matters philosophical and sends him into agony. The same playfulness shows up in offhand turns of phrase: “Jervis’s economic theories are hard to describe for the same reason it’s hard to describe Mahatma Gandhi’s golf swing: he has none.”
The writing is rarely understated; Duncan knows that efficiency isn’t the point. In the 31 years since The Brothers K, he has written books of scathing, spirited non-fiction unpacking the ways that capitalist efficiency has destroyed much of the American West through mining, damming, logging, overfishing, and on. Countering that greed-driven destruction won’t be a top-down enterprise, and it won’t happen purely at the level of policy. “I’ve seen countless op-eds calling for a ‘change of consciousness’ if humanity is to survive,” a character says in Sun House. “I’ve seen zero op-ed descriptions of what this new consciousness looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and lives like from day to day.”
The sights, scents, and sounds of the mountain West are another of the book’s pleasures. Many of the characters follow the movement of Duncan’s own life from Portland to Western Montana, where their dramas play out across mountainsides, meadows, and ranching towns. Some of the most head-spinning passages take place deep in the backcountry of the Inner Elkmoons, a fictional mountain range of jagged peaks and enchanted lakes, where elusive guides appear seemingly out of nowhere. There’s a lot going on here.
The key characters each undertake a journey of revelation. And yet it is not self-reflection but building something marvelous together that ultimately allows them a path forward. It’s called the Elkmoon Beguine & Cattle Company, and it’s not a company per se, or an intentional community, but an “unintentional menagerie” of adults and children searching for durable and decent ways of living in difficult times. After sitting with their stories and wrestlings, they feel like old friends.
It’s taken me a long time to understand what Duncan awakened in me as an 18-year-old first encountering his books. As best I can tell, it has to do with connecting with others on a level more substantial than sports banter and video-game trash talk; with helping to create something more meaningful than over-paved strip-mall landscapes; with learning to trust a part of myself beyond the nattering anxious rational mind.
Sun House offers not a roadmap to those ends, but glimpses, fragments, and pulsating Ocean strobes, as Jervis would put it, closing his eyes in astonishment and whispering a soft profanity. The book offers a lot of these moments. In their abundance lies a heart surging with generosity, sorrow, yearning, playfulness, ecstasy. With fun.