The Old Religion

I recently finished David Mamet’s novel The Old Religion, published in 1997. As you might expect if you know Mamet’s films, the novel is dark. It is a reimagining of the true story of Leo Frank, a factory owner who lived in Georgia in the early twentieth century and who was falsely accused of rape and murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, but during a hospital stay was abducted by a mob and lynched. He was a victim of an anti-semitic culture looking for an outlet for its rage.

The point of the novel isn’t what happens, which is a good thing since the book’s publishers tell you everything (as I have done here) on the back cover. The point is to explore what goes on in the mind of the main character, Leo Frank, and to capture from that perspective what it might feel like to be falsely accused. The book is made up of very short chapters that explore scenes of Frank’s life and give you his thoughts on whatever is occurring, serious or mundane. The book begins before the accusation and trial, so we see Frank among his friends, relaxing, talking, pondering philosophical and political questions. He is a very thoughtful, sensitive, analytical person, and when we finally learn about the rape and murder charges and the trial begins, it’s a shock to see him so badly misunderstood and villainized.

This is the point: to show the humanity of a man whom the world had turned into a monster. Mamet makes this point well, and what’s so effective about it is that he stays inside Frank’s mind with very little narration. We learn about what is happening only indirectly, as a result of Frank’s attempts to process it. As Frank’s world is falling apart around him, he remains the same thoughtful, analytical person, but now his analytical bent becomes a way to try to handle the insanity he is experiencing, a way to stay sane himself. As time goes on, he has to try harder and harder to find ways to occupy his mind, until he ends up looking for meaning in the manufacturers’ names stamped on the bars of his prison cell. Right up until the end, his thoughts are calm and rational, in contrast to the virulence of the people who want to see him dead.

The Old Religion is an intensely uncomfortable book: it’s hard to read about Frank’s downfall and the extremity of the hatred he experienced, and it’s also hard to read Mamet’s portrayal of Frank’s accusers, which is ugly. But Mamet’s stream-of-consciousness style works effectively to capture Frank’s experience. It’s a good thing the book is short, and I say that not because I didn’t like it, but because brevity works well both with Mamet’s subject matter and with his style: he can capture so much in so few words, and that kind of intensity needs to be short-lived.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “The Old Religion

  1. I haven’t had any ‘contact’ with Mamet for some years now. Twenty, maybe even thirty, years ago there was a spate of Mamet’s plays staged here in the UK and I remember seeing one about the real estate business at the National Theatre. It wasn’t as chilling as this book appears to be, but nevertheless, still very disturbing. Latterly, he seems to have disappeared from the scene and I’ve certainly not come across any of his prose work. I have to say that I don’t think I shall be going out and looking for this, but I’m glad to know that such a powerful thinker is still around.

  2. Wow, this sounds like the kind of book I feel I really ought to read, but which I will pass over for something junky and frivolous (and feel bad about!). I admire this sort of literature and it does a very necessary job, but these days I am not so good at reading it. Thanks for the lovely review.

  3. It sounds like an intensely uncomfortable book but worth the it, yes? And sad, it sounds very sad too. Were you left thinking badly about humanity?

  4. I never even knew that Mamet wrote novels! Of his films, I think I’ve only seen The Spanish Prisoner, but I really liked it (once I got over the idea of Steve Martin as a sinister bad guy, and also how the underlying message of the film seems to be “You can’t trust ANYONE…except the US government!”). This sounds like an emotionally tough but fascinating read.

  5. I didn’t know Mamet wrote novels either. I saw a film about Leo Frank, the whole occurrence was really disturbing and I’m not sure I could read about it. Still, it’s sometimes very good to read about these dark, ugly moments in history rather than ignore them. I can see where it would be a good, though uncomfortable read.

  6. Annie — I’m familiar with Mamet mostly through his movies, of which I’ve seen a couple, the most memorable of which was Glengarry Glen Ross, and it was quite harsh. I imagine seeing a play he had written would be intense. It’s nice to “see” you in the blogosphere again!

    Litlove — I wouldn’t be good at a steady diet of it, that’s for sure. I’m grateful the book was as short as it was, because a longer version might have been too intense. I can certainly understand hesitating a bit before picking this sort of thing up!

    Stefanie — interesting question! I have to say I kind of already think poorly of humanity, so Mamet can’t do that much to make my view worse. I suppose what he does is focus on the negative more intensely than most people do, but he also shows a lot of courage and strength in his main character.

    Emily — yes, emotionally tough, especially the ending. I think most people don’t really know about Mamet’s novels, of which he has several. I wonder if that frustrates him at all?

    Danielle — I’ll bet that film was disturbing. It was a really ugly chapter of American history, unfortunately. I agree that it’s good to read about those ugly moments, even if it is uncomfortable.

  7. Wow, this does sound good. I like that even though you “knew” what the novel was about the center of the novel is the exploration of his character. And, count me in as another who didn’t know Mamet wrote novels.

  8. That would be a difficult book. It reminds me of a couple of blood libel movies I’ve seen, fictional and documentaries, and those were difficult as well.

  9. Thank you. This time I intend to stay. Last year was very difficult and I sort of lost control of what really mattered. I definitely want to get back some sort of grasp on the important things this coming year, like reading thoughtfully and keeping up with other people’s ideas.

  10. Iliana — yes, it’s an interesting author who can write a book where I already know the story but find myself engaged anyway. Well, that’s what you have to deal with when you retell a true story, I suppose. I seems like quite a challenge!

    Lilian — yes, that sounds very hard. Not something to be done lightly or often, but valuable now and then.

    Annie — I’m sorry to hear that the past year was difficult, but the New Year is coming up, which means it’s the perfect time to get back on track with things!

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