Dreams Of A Lesser God, Nathan Childers, 1998, Varinoma Press, San Luis Obispo, California
They dream of a lesser God. They redefine His words and carve and scrape at His image to reshape it to their desires and all the time God is still there.
– William “Bull” Morris
I do not understand this book, the more so in that it is transparently simple; if the author were any one else I would have already understood the book.
The story is straightforward and is told in simple, unaffected prose. A young priest, Juan Jesus, goes to Central America, becomes involved with the reform movement, meets a young woman, and leaves the priesthood to marry her. They have a child, a boy born in a manger (yes). The story ends necessarily when the boy is about six – necessarily because the viewpoint ‘character’ is the priest’s dog.
The choice of viewpoint is the only noticeably unusual feature of the novel and even that is unobtrusive and is never made explicit. Indeed, it was not until I was most of the way through the book that I realized that the only events reported were those in which the dog was present. I had been surprised by the emphasis on aromas, something unusual for Childers. The dog, by the way, is an ordinary dog and is not noticeably backward.
Why is the book so hard to understand? Principally because there are so many ways that it can be understood. The title is ambiguous – does it refer to the dreams dreamed by a lesser god or does it refer to the dreams people have about a lesser god. Thus one can think of Juan Jesus as the dog’s god, a lesser god; on this reading the viewpoint character sees the dreams of his lesser god as they unfold but does not understand them.
Conversely, the story can be read as a search by Juan Jesus and Maria (one understands that the names are not an accident – presumably Maria is Mary Magdalene) for a lesser God, one that will accomodate their desires. This reading is more in line with Morris’s famous quotation.
There are many other obvious interpretations possible. None of them are explicit. On a first reading they do not intrude; one is caught up in the story which is quite compelling. One is subliminally aware that there is something going on besides the story. On re-readings the various interpretations pop out; however one has a sense that behind the various readings there is something else that “is still there”. One might interpret this as Childers effecting Morris’s aphorism; however this too is only an interpretation.
There is one other possible interpretation, a personal one. I had met Dr. Childers at a wine pressing festival and had casually remarked to him that I wished he would write a simple book, one that would be easier to review. The dedication reads, “To Richard Harter, who wanted a simple book.” Since reviewers and authors are, in a sense, lesser gods to each other, the entire work may be a sardonic jest at my expense.
Finally, there is another interpretation, which should be obvious…