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Monday, July 28, 2014

Quinn mystifies, educates in 'After Dachau'

At a glance
After Dachau
by Daniel Quinn

Context Books
230 pages, $21.95
hardcover

Daniel Quinn doesn't write just books. He writes philosophical mysteries that ponder the essence of who we humans are and how we affect all other life forms.

In one of Quinn's books, you're apt to find yourself talking to a gorilla. Or a man whom many fear is the Antichrist. Or, as in his new book ``After Dachau,'' a woman who is reincarnated some 2,000 years after suffering a violent death.

And through each of them, you're apt to learn something.

Education, of course, is Quinn's intent. In such novels as the prize-winning ``Ishmael'' and ``The Story of B,'' not to mention the nonfiction ``Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure,'' Quinn is intent on delivering a message about mankind's relationship with the Earth.

And that message is pretty simple: Humanity has long ignored its inherent connection to the planet, and our human arrogance has blinded us to the harm we are causing - both to the overall environment, and to ourselves.

Quinn's talent is that he presents his arguments in a way that avoids being overly didactic. He preaches, but the word comes in stories that are as intriguing as they are habitually readable.

``After Dachau,'' though a variation on Quinn's trademark style, follows that formula well.

Jason Tull, Quinn tells us, is a man born to privilege. But instead of following the path usually trod by the elite, Jason chooses to indulge his obsession with, of all things, reincarnation.

That obsession leads him to an accident victim named Mallory Hastings. After coming out of a brief coma, Mallory has awakened in a panic. Though at first deaf and mute, she finally succeeds in telling the world that she is no longer Mallory but someone named Gloria.

Jason reaches out to Mallory/ Gloria, believing that she is the real thing. Her response to her new situation is violent, and she trusts no one - except, finally, Jason.

Through Jason's patient tutelage, Mallory/Gloria gradually adjusts to her new life. But just as gradually, Jason begins to learn things about his own life that he'd never suspected.

Divulging much more than this about the plot would be unfair to readers. The fact is, most of the enjoyment found in Quinn's books involves the slow unraveling of his story lines.

But note the following:

One, the World War II reference in the title is apt.

Two, while the novel boasts no single Socratic-style ``teacher'' nudging a student into discovering what Quinn calls ``the secret nobody wants to hear,'' the characters, and thus the readers, achieve that understanding anyway.

``After Dachau'' isn't without faults. In making his overall point, Quinn seems to have inadvertently built an inherent contradiction into his story. And in his effort to avoid writing what he dismisses as ``melodrama,'' Quinn makes the motives of one main character a bit too ambiguous.

Yet those are the kinds of points that book critics are paid to ferret out. Many readers might not even notice them, and most of Quinn's fans probably won't care.

And why should they? Unlike other cultural observers, Quinn presents his views along with his stories and not in place of them.

The result is that, like Jason Tull himself, a reader of ``After Dachau'' might end up saying, ``I didn't imagine that these were profound thoughts I was having.''

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster