Small Beer Press: 190 pp., $16 paper
The meek shall inherit the earth, the Bible tells us, but all they get in Julia Holmes' debut novel, "Meeks," is a life of grim servitude.
Set in an allegorical city-state that could be any Western nation with a taste for warfare, statuary and civic-minded totalitarianism, "Meeks" is a prayer for the doomed that reads like a comedy. The hero of this land is one Captain Meeks, whose statue presides over the park where the annual Founders Play takes place. That event marks the deadline for the city's Bachelors to find a mate or risk becoming "a thrown-away man, a worker in the various factories by the waterfront that milled food stuffs and pumped fresh water and slaughtered animals and electrified the night streets and who knew what else, horrible and communal, until one died of exhaustion or was yanked from the factory floor by the trailing teeth of some awful machine."
Holmes begins her novel with its chief protagonist, Ben, uneasily thrust into the blood-sport of finding a mate. Ben is at a significant disadvantage; he has just returned from military service to discover that his mother has died and his childhood home has been reassigned to another family. A tailor, friend to his mother, provides Ben with a black mourning suit and sets him up in a Bachelor House. Ben worries that his cheap dark suit sets him apart from the other Bachelors and their lushly tailored gray suits. He is rebuked by the tailor: "This is no time for formalities, Ben. Let's not explore our feelings, shall we?"
Unfortunately for Ben, his feelings run counter to his best interests. "Hundreds of Bachelors were strolling in loose formation toward the park," Holmes writes. "Ben wanted only to go home, to go back to his little room and lie still in the little bed." Ben is a bit of a Bartleby: He would very much like a mate but is incapable of engineering a meeting with a woman, much less orchestrating a mating dance. He all but concedes defeat before the game gets underway, and Holmes deftly mines this territory for its comic possibilities. Imagine a Kafka-esque hero in a fin-de-siècle reality show.
The satire here has plenty of bite, but instead of winking at the reader, Holmes evokes her world with luminous prose. A gun is a "black fang in the moonlight." A scene in which a "cloud dragged its shadow like a net across the trees" heralds both a change in the weather and a darkening of the spirit.
Not all the characters in the novel share Ben's cynicism. A different Meeks — either an undercover police officer or a vagrant who lives in the park — is a font of cheerful optimism and happily accepts any task the chief of police may give him. Though he believes he is the son of the legendary Captain, he actually came by his name because he was conceived at the foot of the great man's statue. "The human mind is surely the weakest instrument available," Holmes reminds us, "in the study of the passage of time."
Although others see Meeks as a buffoon, he is the captain of his own destiny. Ben, on the other hand, is easily overmastered. He is incapable of following the herd but can't break free of it either. With humor and heartbreak, Holmes' novel unfolds like a game in which the deck is irredeemably stacked. "Meeks" is a reminder that in marriage, war and even art, meekness is not a blessing but a curse.
Ruland is the author of the short-story collection "Big Lonesome."