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Author: Ray Blackston
Publisher: Fleming H. Revell
Length: 331 pp. (est.)
Flabbergasted, the debut work of Ray Blackston, is a valiant and well-meaning, but disappointingly pedestrian, attempt at a flip and breezy beach reader. Although its premise of chronicling the inner workings of a Christian singles church group shows promise, this novel gets bogged down in the author's seeming goal to combine hip irreverence with a Christian message. While this is not an impossible task, Blackston clearly misses the mark.
First, some good news. Blackston is dead on in his subject matter. He captures perfectly the white-bread, career-minded, late twenty-something meat market that is the twenty-first century evangelical singles group. Even more striking is his accurate characterization of the single denizens of a South Carolina Presbyterian church. Look in at any medium/large size Christian group of unmarrieds and you'll find exacting variations of Blackston's literary creations. There is Stanley: religious shirt wearing, seminary attending, legalistic know it all; Darcy: tall, hip, lime-green Cadillac-driving rich girl; Allie: tomboyish, yet exotic, sold out missionary babe; and even Ransom: token married guy who just happens to be a surfer dude. All of these characters (obviously minus) Ransom are in one way or another in search of the ultimate prize: to find the "one." And what better place to find a mate then at your local church singles group?
Enter our protagonist: Jay Jarvis. Flabbergasted, while orbiting around the Group, is essentially Jay's story. We see the world of the Christian single through the lens of Mr. Jarvis. Late of Texas, twenty-seven year old Jay has moved to South Carolina to begin his new job as a stock broker. Informed by a helpful local that the best place to meet the area ladies is at a church, the not religious Jay hits up his nearest place of worship. Accompanying the singles on a weekend beach trip, he becomes infatuated with the mysterious, poetic Allie, and, boom! we are off the races. Eventually, Jay chases the elusive Allie to the far corners of South America. Along the way, he encounters a fishing preacher, a men's accountability group, a near-death experience, the inevitable conversion to Christianity, and finally, a choice between the big promotion to New York City, or the OTHER calling you know, the "go ye into all the world" type of calling.
Herein lies the problem with the novel, while most of the book is somewhat pleasing fluff, the last third suddenly shifts into epic mode as Jay faces his quintessential "spiritual rite of passage." It is as if Blackston, knowing he is catering to the Christian market, felt the need to add a huge dose of spirituality to satisfy his readers. His original formula, though not exactly extraordinary, nevertheless made the book readable. However, once into its pseudo-deep phase, the book becomes almost unfinishable.
Two other glaring weaknesses are in the prose and in characterization. Blackston, a stockbroker-turned-writer, utilizes Jay as a first-person narrator. This technique can be a risky medium even for great writers. Too often, instead of being fun and natural, the narration becomes strained and tiresome. Unfortunately, this novel is yet another example of this. Additionally, the writing tries to be too clever. For example, Jay describes Ransom's surfboard art as "a psalm among palms." Sophisticated alliteration it is not. As Flabbergasted wears on, the tone only becomes more grating.
Secondly, while Blackston ably constructs his characters, he does little to develop them or to give them a sense of unpredictability. For the most part, they vary little from their stock personalities, which consequently, leaves slight room for the reader to invest in them emotionally. Even Jay, who undergoes a significant spiritual change, fails to add anything that would already have been expected.
In the end, Flabbergasted is the victim of its own noble intentions. Blackston evidently is trying to produce a story that is edgy and hip, yet satisfactory to the Christian audience. While I applaud his efforts, he is simply not yet up the task. Perhaps his subsequent literary outings will improve his skill as a writer. This said, due to a slick marketing campaign, its interesting premise, and pleasing spiritual message, Flabbergasted will probably do well in the Christian market. Sadly, the reader will find they have purchased a light weight, adequately written time filler. Don't worry though, it will make good (spiritual) beach reading.
Noel Lloyd 5/3/03
Flabbergasted describes how stockbroker Jay Jarvis feels when he stops to consider his surroundings. Recently transferred to South Carolina, Jay feels two things: a need for female companionship and a vague spiritual longing. This leads him to North Hills Presbyterian Church and its singles group.
Here he meets a cast of characters like those in every stereotypical singles group: Stanley, the overly serious theologian; Steve, the veteran who is there to pick up women; Lydia, the helpful and personable but heavyset woman; Darcy, the one who marches to her own drummer; and Allie, the elder’s daughter who aspires to be a missionary.
Through a weekend retreat at the beach, Jay finds himself alternately fascinated and confused by the women there (and some of the men). He meets up with Nancy and the Numericals, a group of young women who stick together in defense against the whole dating concept. Increasingly, he realizes his attraction for Allie, which is returned in a guarded way. There is only one problem…Allie is leaving for Ecuador to begin her mission work. Jay is crushed, but vows to get on with his life. He plunges into work while still involved in the singles activities. After a while, he comes to some conclusions: that there is something to this whole God business and that he will not be able to forget Allie by dating others.
His efforts at work are rewarded. He is offered a lucrative position within his company in New York City. At around the same time, he answers a personal ad on the Internet that turns out to be Allie. She doesn’t know it is Jay that has responded, and he keeps it that way for awhile. His intense feelings for her become even stronger…
Want to know how it turns out? Read the book. Flabbergasted is Blackston’s first novel, but it doesn’t read that way. At times poignant, at other times hilarious, Flabbergasted is a great read - it makes some spiritual points without beating you over the head with them and it contains just enough plot twists to keep you guessing. An enjoyable read on a summer afternoon, perhaps by the pool.
Brian A. Smith 19 July 2003