reviewed by B. David Zarley | Saturday, February 16th, 2013

"God, Forgive These Bastards" by Rob MortonCantankerous Titles, 96 pages, paperback, $7.95

There is just enough confusion, upon reading God, Forgive These Bastards, as to whether Henry Turner was a real person or rather the well-fleshed out — if sparingly explored — creation of author and Taxpayers musician Rob Morton; whether the smattering of details both correct and incorrect are merely meant for miasmic effect or if they are errors born of Turner himself, historical and continuity sic, that it bears mentioning.

For what it is worth, Henry Gray Turner was quite real, as well as the county that bears his name; Jim Luck did indeed coach the Georgia Tech baseball team in 1977, although they did not make a playoff appearance (at least not an NCAA appearance) that year; Linndale, Ohio, is a small village in Cuyahoga County and a notorious speed trap, although mention of a Linndale Strangler was nowhere to be found, with searches instead turning up information on Anthony Sowell of Imperial Avenue infamy, and so on and so forth. There are just enough things being real and just enough being wrong, with some holes (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, not Atlanta Constitution Journal, a seemingly minor incongruence that takes on heavier weight when one realizes that the papers had not merged mastheads until 2001; Turner recounting a story that took place while he was a sleeping baby, which is later explained as being revealed to him by a character who was not there and whose first-hand knowledge would have come from another party who was asleep) large enough to temporarily throw off the composition.

Prima facie, the establishment of an actual Henry Turner would seem to be critical to appreciating Morton’s book, or the accompanying album (this is less enjoyable than the book and is described as “jazz punk,” which, in this instance at least, is analogous to fourth wave ska as free verse poetry is to tennis, which is to say, playing with the net down) but in reality, it only matters insofar as how much ink should be allocated to praising Morton for creating a character so well put together that even the mythical arc of his life and stories does not dissuade the reader from (briefly) scouring the web in search of him. The fact is, I am not one for grueling research when finally freed from the class room, and, aforementioned talking point aside, God, Forgive would read the same regardless of whether Turner sprung purely from Morton’s imagination or materialized one day at a Portland bus station fully realized and formed from blood, speed, and the hazy detritus of irrevocably broken memories.

Either way, Morton’s murderous, broken, and even kindly baseball pitcher-cum-no collar knockaround-cum-homeless street wizard reads as real, even in his most thoroughly opaque moments, such as drowning in a swarm of flies that have burst forth from his own boils, or running up against the devil in Cleveland, Ohio (admittedly a reasonable place for one to find Old Scratch), an episode which re-imagines, with visceral fear, the classic American Satan story, shades of  Daniel Webster and Tom Walker.

More important than the truth are Morton’s messages, one explicitly laid out in the press materials and another that is not so much a “message,” per se, but more a vibe. The “Marketing Notes” message is one keyed on forgiveness; more specifically, the forgiveness of actions or people that would well be written off as unforgivable by the vast majority of the population. Morton makes mention of the various Henry Turners who have inflicted suffering and pain upon those he knows, and how the typical reaction is to pull back, act as one twice bitten, wall off, and never forgive. By humanizing a torturer, Morton attempts to put a face on the worst person you have known, to inspire compassion for a man whose own pain may very well dwarf that inflicted upon you.

Told as a recollection of Turner’s tales, God, Forgive These Bastards reads as a collection of fables; there are various spiderweb threads holding the pieces together, but each stands apart from the other, a sort of devotional for the helplessly damned. The more outlandish Turner’s stories, the more interesting, with a recounting of his Icarian playoff play-in game and a cocaine-fueled Halloween burn to Athens, Georgia being notable exceptions. These pieces find their worth in that they are perfectly nonoutlandish, eerily similar to yarns that could be spun by your best ex-jock raconteur friend, or the boy with $200 Gucci sneakers and a seemingly limitless supply of mid-grade coke and girls willing to fuck for mid-grade coke and the kind of various escapades that combination is wont to have. As such, those are among the most powerful of the book’s fables; the closer Henry Turner is to someone you know, the closer Morton comes to inspiring one to forgive.

Message received, it is on to the vibe: God, Forgive is perhaps a prime example of punk literature. Aside from being made as a companion to an album, the book reads as punk rock; I finished it in roughly an hour, and the structure, broken into its 12 vignettes, is as close to an LP as one can get sans magnetic tape. When viewed from a punk lens, it comes as no surprise that Morton’s prose is a touch on the simplistic side, slightly staid, shot through here and there with above average imagery, but lacking in the kind of heart-stopping, profoundly beautiful sentences or turns of phrase that serve both to nonplus and enamor. (To be fair, the vast majority or writers are incapable of these actions, and as such, their absence is not so damning as it may appear. Such Beautiful Violence would feel a touch out of place here in any event; Turner is meant to be humanized, not lionized, lifted from nothing rather than placed on a pedestal.) It reads fast and unflinching, and takes pleasure in glossing over some of the most profoundly disconcerting aspects of Turner’s life while resting a bit too long on things more banal, which in this case is relative, as a book that can be digested in an hour cannot rightfully be accused of alighting for too long upon anything.

In this final regard, Morton does forgiveness a disservice; while learning of the Passion of Henry Turner indeed engenders mercy at first, a closer look reveals that a good deal of ink is spent on wild parties and speed-fueled athletic suicide, personal insanity and addiction and close proximity to the tragic and deranged, thing happening to Henry Turner, rather than things Henry Turner has done. When turned about in one’s mind, the man’s sins begin to accumulate, and the scale teeters precariously, perhaps more precariously than Morton could have ever intended, between this black weight and his penance.

B. David Zarley is a freelance writer based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @BDavidZarley.

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