Three of a Humankind, a Review
By Bruce Roberts
Three of a Humankind, by Michael Sunnafrank, is an interesting book, filled with ideas relevant to human thought the world over. But is it a novel?
This book takes place in Napa, California, a world class tourist attraction, famous everywhere for wine and wineries, symbolic of “The Good Life.” Yet throughout the book, problems between the characters exist, endemic problems that undercut the euphoric tourist attraction world created by the Chamber of Commerce–something to remember when we’re in vacation mode, visiting pleasant places where real people live. Indeed, Napa here becomes a microcosm of class strife in the world. The town is dominated by the rich. They own the wineries, the country clubs, and earn everyone else’s hatred with their arrogant behavior.
In this book, driving these behaviors, on all sides, are spirits and demons. Yes, actual demons, who control the rich and see to it that they are properly greedy and arrogant at every turn. The chief demon is Mamona—the Biblical epitome of arrogance and greed– and he is upset—and vengeful—when two rich characters try to change their ways, for he fears to offend the head demon—The Master. Mamona is counterbalanced by a variety of spirits who advise and inspire the non-rich characters: The Grandfather, The Enemy, the Hawaiian god, Pele, a man in a hat, even an eagle. Toward the end of the story, even Ronnie, a long-dead friend, materializes in an old white jeep yet. Who knew spirits could drive? In fiction, of course, anything goes, but this infestation of spirits and demons does not make the story more believable.
In teaching writing all my life, the standard rule, for fiction at least, has been “SHOW NOT TELL.” This author missed that lesson in junior high. He “TELLS” 90% of the story, so it’s really more like a political and philosophical treatise than a novel. There are a few scenes where he attempts to let action “SHOW” what’s going on, but even those are heavily framed in “TELLING” the philosophical basis behind them. His is a total third person, omniscient narrator, a style that gets old quickly. Even when the narrator is reading the characters’ minds, nearly every thought seems, again, a political diatribe.
The author and I, politically, are kindred spirits. I subscribe to The Nation, a very “liberal” magazine, and this book is like a long Nation editorial. Characters and spirits have been added for a little spice, but they are essentially mouthpieces—talking heads– for the author’s political ideas. And I agree with them. I think the author’s understanding of our nation’s problems, from a “liberal” point-of-view, is right on. Yet the fact that I’ve “heard it all before,” detracts from my interest in this as a novel.
Through all the improbable spirits, the mouthpiece characters, and the political diatribes, one idea does stand out as a different way of defining the human condition—that the root of all our problems is our self-centeredness. Any human-caused problem can be defined this way, from war to politics to sibling rivalry over the family bathroom. People look out for themselves first, instead of caring for those around them. But while some of the characters certainly exemplify this, we are mostly told about it, instead of watching it develop naturally through the characters’ words and actions.
So, if you’re interested in a beautifully written novel, the kind that makes you want to read aloud and savor every word, filled with vivid atmosphere, unique characters, and startlingly new ideas, this book is not for you. However, if you want a clearly-written dissection of America’s problems, from a liberal point-of-view, with a trip to Napa and myriad demons and spirits thrown in for spice, then take a chance, and read Three of a Humankind, by Michael Sunnafrank.
Bruce Roberts may be reached at email@example.com and is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California.