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  • Writer's pictureRJ Smith

Dissident Reviews #1: The Fall by J.L. Mackey

Henry Johnson is a young man living in a small town in the southern United States. A devout Christian, Johnson makes a living lifting heavy weights before gawking evangelical congregations, an ability he believes was given to him by God.

Johnson’s feats of strength attract him admirers. His face appears on billboards, inviting crowds to bear witness to his heavy metal gimmick, and everywhere he goes Johnson is greeted with signs of his burgeoning celebrity.

Intrigued by his abilities, a young lady named Shelly approaches Johnson after one of his shows. Shelly is so intrigued by Henry that she insists on watching him work out to understand how what he does is even possible. Johnson reluctantly agrees, and invites Shelly back to his home gym where a sexual encounter occurs between them.

Johnson battles with his conscience following the incident with Shelly. At the same time he discovers why he and his mother were abandoned by his father, and is approached by ‘local businessmen’ who seek to monetise his abilities. All of this creates a storm of temptation and internal conflict which builds towards the story’s ending, where Johnson’s misdeeds finally catch up with. Or so it appears at first.

I read the story in one sitting and found it well written and engaging. The characters are believable, the sexual tension between Johnson and Shelly is a solid hook, and the setting in the south shines through, especially in the dialogue.

There are some aspects I think could benefit from tightening. There are several typos, and in one case names are mixed up. The formatting could also be improved (Kindle “CreateSpace” is useful for this purpose and free).

On the substantive side, there is a section two thirds of the way through the story where new characters are introduced who are cultivating marijuana, with no clear link to the story. I also found it jarring when I learned, rather late in the story, that Johnson is 25 years old (I pictured him being quite a bit older for some reason).

The main issue I had—and perhaps this is a matter of taste—is the ending, which I found a little confusing and implausible, even in the context of fiction (and as a Girardian greatly interested in crowd violence). I also would have liked a bit more build-up, but that is more a compliment than a critique.

These comments aside, the book is thought-provoking. It shows the difficulty of living with faith in a godless age. In a sense Johnson’s moral purity before his fall from grace was more freakish than his physique. And while not 100% polished, the book is well worth reading.

About Dissident Reviews:

In this series, I plan to review—in a spirit of objectivity and constructive criticism—“dissident” works, by which I mean works establishment publishing houses would overlook for ideological reasons. My motivations for doing so are to:

  • discover works from outside the mainstream, which I consider politicised and uninteresting;

  • network with like-minded writers;

  • promote work I consider good and offer useful critiques for that I think could be better; and

  • promote my own work.

About me:

I am an Australian writer living in France. I am in the process of publishing a three-novel series—the first of which is available here—and have had non-fiction published in Quadrant and Quillette magazines and The Australian newspaper.

Authors are welcome to use quotes from these reviews (with attribution). If you would like me to review your book please get in touch via my Twitter page.

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