A ratty pair of sneakers is the only physical evidence of the weekend Gideon Mack says he spent at the gates of Hell. The editor who tries to confirm his memoir's details is left with frustrating inconsistencies. But this purported autobiography of a rebellious preacher's kid, faithless minister, and finally confirmed heretic offers a rich narrative spiced with existential angst. In his meditation on devotion to an absentee God, Scottish novelist James Robertson passes on didacticism and dogma, treating his readers to a compulsively readable and sometimes profound story of unrequited love.
Mack speaks from beyond the grave in this manuscript written in the hours before he sets off for his second meeting with the devil—a journey that, according to the preface, ended with his dead body rotting on a hillside. His tale begins with upbringing in the manse (the home provided for ministers in the Scottish Church) with his spare-the-rod father and ineffectual mother. Gideon spitefully plans to crush his father's dreams that his son will follow him into the ministry, only to decide after college that becoming an atheist pastor is too sweet a revenge to pass up. When his wife is killed in a car accident, he begins to lose confidence in his own apostasy and even dallies with his best friend's wife before falling into a chasm on the rocky coast—where, instead of dying from his injuries, he spends three days with a mysterious man who claims to be the devil. Mack emerges determined to be honest about his newfound (albeit topsy-turvy) belief in the supernatural, but instead succeeds in alienating every friend he has left, while pining fitfully for the intimacy he achieved with the hellish trickster in that sandy cave.
Robertson writes with a directness and bleak fatalism appropriate to the harsh Calvinist milieu of the Scottish Kirk. And his protagonist Mack relates his life—familiar Freudian hang-ups and unlikely demonic adventures alike—with a kind of regretful hope. By recovering his motivations and tracing his convoluted changes of heart, Mack tries to leave behind an apology for his life that will humanize him in the eyes of those who have only ever seen his collar or his disgrace. To this confession, Robertson adds the whimsical, postmodern touch of editorial commentary that neither confirms nor disproves his story, but gives it a shifting foothold on pragmatic Scottish soil, somewhere north of hell's outer circles. Mack's journey through the haunted void of his religion isn't necessarily inspiring, but its honesty and strength make it a tonic nonetheless.