Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2006

Lizard Dreaming of Birds
John Gist
High Sierra Books
Gold Beach, OR
Hardcover 217 pp. $24.95

Late in John Gist's dark spiritual quest novel, Lizard Dreaming of Birds, a character opines, “People like Westerns because the individual takes precedence. Thrown into the landscape, they learn of themselves. Nothing's predetermined.” This passage passes as a fair summation of the plot, environs, and nature of this challenging second novel. Though it begins with a suicide in an urban Seattle squat, the majority of the work deals with the tempering of souls in the peculiar crucible of the West (and to a lesser extent, the upper Northwest). With its focus on tribulation and redemption in the context of these particular environments, it is almost impossible to avoid the comparison of Lizard with the work of Cormac McCarthy.  

Structurally, Gist sets himself a high bar, presenting us with a series of shifting narratorial POVs—male, female; Christian, iconoclast; first person, third person. Unfortunately, he does not always clear the bar on the first jump. On occasion, the voices of differing characters seem to adhere to a master voice, thus fuzzing the individuality of certain  characters. Given Gist's obvious gifts as a writer, this isn't always a bad thing, especially when he waxes effortlessly from plain prose to pulp to poesy and back again. Lizard is an interesting read, often running on the literary equivalent of two wheels as it rounds lexical and theosophical corners seldom successfully traveled. We can't help but wish that Gist had decided on a single narrative direction and stuck with it. Still, we can't fault him for firing his rifle at the broad and complex sky. (It's just so durn big and full of potential.) 

The plot revolves around a primary character, Jubal Siner, a hardened nihilistic skeptic if not a full-on cynic, and it is Jubal's dark, expansive voice that we find threading its way through the thought and speech of other characters. The character of Jubal calls to mind the similar disenchanted narrators of Sartre's Nausea and Hamsum's Hunger; however, in that this is a spiritual desperation emblematic of the Americas, Gist's antihero owes more to Castenada and the aforementioned McCarthy than to Sartre or Hamsun. As such, salvation seems attainable though not necessarily at a light cost. Potential readers should be warned: this is not a light read. Lizard Dreaming of Birds displays the sweat inherent in American spiritual pathlessness and the confused anguish that rises in the wake of suicidal action. It is not a perfect book, but it is eminently worth reading, if only for Gist's exceptional verbal suppleness.  Recommended.