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.