Fiction is a tough category to write. An author has to create a universe rich in detail, full of subtleties, yet have a broad enough range of narrative arcs to push the story along. The reader also needs to work; we have to suspend our disbelief in order to not get confused between reality and make-believe, especially when an author writes a historical fiction or a fictional story about an actual place.
Ken Wheaton’s debut novel, “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival” adeptly invents an alternate reality of Grand Prairie, Louisiana (an actual place) with a complex cast of characters (all created from Mr. Wheaton’s vivid imagination) creating exactly what a good book should: a movie for your mind.
Written in a unique, first person present tense (“I look at her and say…” as opposed to the typical first person past tense “I looked at her and said…”), which acutely represents the dichotomy of the main character (and narrator) Father Steve Sibille, Mr. Wheaton’s narrative style does take the reader by surprise. Priests are not supposed to talk, let alone think, in the way Father Steve does. Yet the honesty of Wheaton, through Father Steve’s inner turmoil of balancing his faith with his feelings, portrays a common theme in many religions, especially Christianity: how to deal with the contradictions between doctrine and reality.
Father Steve is not your typical shepherd; he drinks; he smokes; he cusses. However, he loves his flock and is in danger of losing them to the shiny new Pentecostals, who moved in down the block. The story progresses towards entertaining results as Father Steve, with the help of his friends both old and new – Vicky Carrier, daughter of the priest Father Steve replaced; Miss Rita, an old woman who is Father Steve’s conscious and a woman his parents hired as help when he was a child; gay priest and general rabble-rouser Father Mark Johnson, attempts to compete with the over-enthusiastic Pentecostals by conjuring up The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival.
Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the carnies with the folksy wisdom and giant elephant (I think everybody, at one point in their lives, has always wanted to ride on top of the gentle pachyderm – at least I have) or the mouth-watering cookery of the deep woods of Louisiana (or inspired by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal): slow cooked stuffed hog inside a full heifer.
“The First Annual Grand Prairie Festival” touches on some serious cultural and societal themes, too (note, these two classifications are different and Mr. Wheaton does look at culture and society from an interesting, if not amusing, lens).
Mr. Wheaton tackles the expansionist, everything-bigger-is-better American philosophy through the relationship between Father Steve’s close-knit parish and Brother B.P’s Pentecostal group.
He explores the notions of sexuality through the inner (and sometimes outer) dialogue of Father Steve, who has committed his life to celibacy – even though he is surrounded by physical temptation, as well as the constant, loving nagging to find a woman from Miss Rita. Mr. Wheaton also looks at sexuality through Father Mark, the openly gay priest who descends on Grand Prairie and Father Steve like a flamboyant hurricane.
Mr. Wheaton also asks us to confront questions of faith: Why should a member of the clergy follow certain rules, but ignore others? And if a priest can break a few rules, well, why can’t we? Has the caricature of religion in the United States really become Brother BP, with his grandiose lifestyle and pious outlook on one hand and a closet full of secrets on the other?
There are some very absorbing characters in this book, all of whom seem to be seeking redemption for something. And this could be the best reason to read this book, because who among us isn’t searching for faith or companionship or the introduction of a new way to spell a favorite contraction of the South, “Yall.” Well, maybe the best reason is the traditional Cajun recipes at the back of the book.