SET in the fictitious small fishing town of Monimaskit, somewhere north of Edinburgh on Scotland’s bleak and beautiful east coast, “The Testament of Gideon Mack” is a tantalizing triptych, a confession written by Mack and discovered after his apparent suicide that is flanked by the prologue and epilogue of an editor who has proposed to publish it.
Though this is Scottish writer James Robertson’s third novel, “Testament” is his first published in the United States. It’s an intrinsically -- indeed, peculiarly -- Scottish book in terms of its geography and Gothic storyline; nonetheless, its themes and almost dangerous qualities of seduction have a universal appeal.
The design of the narrative makes it so that big plot points are revealed right at the start. We learn within the first few pages that Mack became a Presbyterian minister, like the father he rebelled against, and somehow went “spectacularly off the rails.” He commits adultery and claims to have met the Devil after a near-death experience that he survived by a seeming miracle. The novel’s question then becomes: How did this happen?
Here Robertson demonstrates craft and skill, spinning Mack’s narrative out of two different strands. One looks backward and tells the story of his life; the other, more urgently, reveals what happens after Mack, in his 40s and already a bitter, even desperate, man, comes upon a monolithic stone with something “cruel and alien about it,” while running in the forest. The stone wasn’t there before; nobody else has seen it or heard of it; yet Mack knows at once that the stone radiates some dire importance for him.
Mack can’t help himself and returns to the stone again and again, as if seeking his ultimate confrontation with the character for whom the Scots have “a dazzling array of names”: “Auld Nick, Sandy, Sim, Auld Sootie, Clootie, Ruffie, the Deil, the Foul Thief, the Earl o Hell, the Auld Smith, the Auld Ane, the Wee Man, Auld Mishanter, Auld Mahoun.”
The other, more conventionally autobiographical part of Mack’s confession deals with his childhood and education at the University of Edinburgh. This story shows how, without belief in God, he commits himself to a life in the church, and how, without much love, he settles for a marriage to a devoted wife who will die tragically.
Mack is a prickly, memorable character. He despises his own coldness. He knows something burns inside him, and he is afraid to let it out. He isn’t especially likable, but he tries hard to be a good man, working hard for charity and his parishioners. Though he believes in the rational, in facts and the possibility of making a difference, all the while he feels the presence of somebody watching him and acting upon him. His “sinister” left hand occasionally seems to have a life of its own:
“I felt myself lift and tilt. The arm began to behave like a disembodied conductor’s arm at the finale of some great orchestral concert, jumping and jerking in wild circular movements. I watched it, unable to interfere. I went down on my knees, then on to my right side, then on to my back. A stricken ship. I felt I might sink through the carpet, right through the floorboards. Slowly I came to rest. The arm came down on top of me, heavy and triumphant, as if it had defeated me in a wrestling bout.”
Mack wonders if he is having a stroke, like his father. In fact his life is passing beyond his control in an even darker and more irreversible way. Mack is a profoundly thoughtful man who finds himself ambushed, not by doubt but by faith. The trouble is that this faith arrives in the twisted form of the Devil, who employs UFOs, poltergeists, crop circles and strange stones that pop up out of nowhere to mess with people’s minds.
Yet Mack can’t help but find him attractive. Here’s the Devil talking with pity and almost love about his eternal enemy: “What’s in this for him? If things are going well, people forget about him. They unchain the swings, turn the churches into casinos, and mock anybody who still believes in him. He’s a very easy target. And who does he get left with? Fanatics and maniacs of every faith and persuasion, who want to kill the heretics and blow themselves to pieces in his name. I feel sorry for God, I do.”
The fact is, the Devil confides, he doesn’t know where God is; he hasn’t seen him in a while.
Some will find this diabolic encounter controversial. Robertson makes concrete and external for Gideon Mack the evil and doubt that many of us fear might lurk inside us. In so doing, he looks back beyond the recent vernacular fiction of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh to an older Scottish literary tradition, to earlier writers who have used this device of the shadowy double, notably Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and James Hogg in “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.” Hogg’s fiendish 1824 novel is one that “The Testament of Gideon Mack” strongly resembles in theme and narrative structure.
Robertson uses the Gothic to explore contemporary issues of religion and faith. His deep subject, though, is life’s gathering sadness and doom. Mack writes of his father: “I looked at him, this grey man in his cavern of decay, and it occurred to me that he might not have ended up there by choice, by a deliberate stratagem, but by a series of accidents. I vowed then that I would not do the same, that I would be different.”
This promise is made with youth’s cocky blitheness; later Mack realizes that his dead father is having the last laugh. “Nearly thirty years on, and I have become him.” Does this utterance spring from madness or self-knowledge? It’s left to the reader to decide. Extraordinary events overtake the protagonist and destroy him, and, right until the very end -- indeed especially then -- Robertson cleverly keeps opening and shutting the door on the question of whether those events are supernatural.
“The Testament of Gideon Mack” is simply, clearly written and shows throughout wisps of the wry, dry, self-deprecating humor that is a part of the Calvinist tradition it explores. A few scenes, notably when Mack conducts a funeral and tells a bunch of astounded mourners what he learned from his sojourn with the Devil, achieve the sort of wild, embarrassed hilarity that one associates with Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim.” But, more than this, Robertson’s greatest achievement is that he creates fiction that’s haunting, memorable and completely compelling out of a thorny, depressing subject: unhappiness. *