For all intents and purposes, it shouldn’t work, but Steven Mayoff’s The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief is a grand work of, let’s say, magical fiction that uses humour in large measure to elicit some very serious thoughts about art, politics, law, love, faith, community and more.
Mayoff takes part in two events during the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival: on Feb. 11, he presents at Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam and, on Feb. 12, he is at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, along with Jeffrey Groberman, author of Globetrotting Strikes Again! Groberman also presents at Har El in West Vancouver on Feb. 11.
It is hard to describe simply the plot of The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief. The title character is a middling artist who, when we meet him, is struggling to finish a painting. Outside his window, he has just seen – after a break of 13 years – three figments of his imagination. The Figs, as he calls them, present themselves in the forms of Judas, Fagin and Shylock, and they have returned with an important mission for Grief.
“The Supreme One,” who the Figs represent, was impressed by Grief’s scandalous, and most famous, painting of Prince Edward Island icon Anne of Green Gables as a Holocaust survivor, which Grief described in an interview as a statement “on the post-911 world we’re living in, where nobody is safe anymore and the primary victim is the delusion of our collective innocence.” Despite that Grief has not had much artistic or other success in the years since that painting – and that he is not actively involved in the island’s Jewish community – the Supreme One wants Grief to build PEI’s first synagogue. Once complete, the province will be consecrated as the new Promised Land, according to the Figs.
Among Grief’s many challenges – once he decides to take on the mission – is that the Supreme One has decreed that the synagogue must be built on a particular plot of land, a once-sacred place that has become a garbage dump and the focus of much political intrigue. It is hard to keep track of all the political manoeuvrings in this novel, but they sadly resonate, with some reality in their self-serving and unscrupulous nature.
It takes Mayoff awhile to set up the many pieces of his narrative puzzle. The characters are numerous, and quirky only begins to describe them. The societal issues that arise as Grief tries to achieve his mission, the role played by the media – both conventional and unconventional – in what ends up happening, the reliability and unreliability of friendship and love … so many factors are up in the air and changing as the story progresses. Somehow Mayoff juggles them all in a way that allows readers to follow along, discovering various elements as Grief does, and losing our naiveté as he does.
The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief is an ambitious novel that delivers beyond its promise.
For the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival guide, visit jccgv.com/jewish-book-festival.