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Review: Ride to Glory
As a matter of principle, I finish any book I start reading. Some books are easy to finish - anything by John Irving, and John Kennedy Toole's masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, for example. Others are more difficult. No book in recent memory, or distant memory for that matter, challenged this principle more than Ride to Glory by Warren LeRoi Johns, a lawyer and novelist wannabe.
Ride to Glory tells the story of one Joshua Chamberlain Ryan, a double PhD candidate in geology and paleontology, who has come to the conclusion, through a careful analysis of the evidence, that the earth is no more than 10 000 years old and that descent with modification is not a valid scientific theory, but rather a collection of "horse-and-buggy myths". Throughout the book Josh continually spouts standard young-earth creationist claptrap, and in fact, many of Johns's source for Josh's diatribes are well-known creationist organizations such as the Institute for Creation Research and anti-evolutionist authors such as Michael Denton.
The plot revolves around a mock trial in which the jury is asked to "render a simple Yes or No verdict to this key issue: 'Is evolution a fact?'"; the judge adds, "Your responsibility will be to judge Charles Robert Darwin guilty or not guilty of propagating fact-free science" (italics in original). The trial is staged by ace Hollywood promoter Pace Terhune. Josh is the star witness, aided by his best friend, law student JT Thomas. JT tosses fluff-ball questions at Josh, whose creationist rhetoric flows in italics, meticulously footnoted by Johns. Traci Kilburn, the new and beautiful love in Josh's life, is responsible for the completely unchallenging cross-examination.
The book fails as literature even more than it fails as science. The dialog is so contrived that it quickly became close to physically painful to read. Josh is described by one of his professors as speaking "the language of the streets". Apparently Johns has not heard any "language of the streets" since "blaxploitation" films were big in the 1970s. Much of the dialog strains at wit and then gets sprinkled with some "bros" to add that hip young attitude: "What's goin' on, Bro? You and the Montgomery County Sheriff are the only people cruisin' the scene at this outrageous hour. You oughta' be in church with the rest of the sinners... [Y]ou could use some of your granddad's preachin' to rid you of those lawyer-like flaws." Who in the world talks like that? Johns must have worn out the apostrophe on his keyboard.
The characters in the book are all completely 2-dimensional, without the slightest bit of the complexity and depth that draws us to literary characters. Joshua Chamberlain Ryan has a 4.0 grade-point average, and never a doubt about his convictions or beliefs enters his mind. Traci Kilburn and JT Thomas are unfailingly witty and charming. Dr Karl Striker, "flamboyant campus scientist" and Josh's archnemesis, comes across as gruff, authoritarian and, most importantly, unbending in his religiously dogmatic approach to Darwinism. In fact, the contrast between the supporters of evolution, Striker and his minions, and the upholders of truth, Josh and his buddies, is shallow and obvious to the point of boredom. Two of Striker's underlings turn out to be pathetically nefarious characters, a drug addict and a would-be murderer who attempts to kill Josh.
Josh Ryan appears virtually faultless, which makes him unreal and not the least bit sympathetic. Likewise, Traci and JT are cut from exactly the same mold, always equipped with snappy little comebacks for any situation. When we read about fictional characters, it is often more their faults than their superlative virtues that draw us to them, because we can relate to fallible characters - except for readers who happen to be perfect themselves; but I would imagine that that clientele is pretty small.
The plot is so predictable that I began wishing I had taken some speed reading courses. The reader is pummeled, page after page, with tiresome, strained dialog, and such an easily predictable plot that it is possible to anticipate the story line 10, or even 100, pages later. Each plot line proceeds mechanically and unswervingly so that the story wraps up at the end like a television sitcom.
There is not space here to go into the plot in any depth, but I feel pretty sure that after the first 50 pages or so any reader can guess how just about the whole thing will turn out. Traci will accept Josh's proposal of marriage; Josh will be united with his grandmother, although she dies trying to save his thoroughbred horse from a barn fire set by one of Striker's minions (who then dies in a minivan trying to escape the scene); Josh becomes a star after thoroughly refuting Darwin's theories in "Monkey II"; and JT is promised a spot at a major law firm upon his graduation from law school.
Though subtitled An American Novel, from my experience studying the former Soviet Union in depth, I would say that the book reads more like some kind of official propaganda. The absolute demarcation between the guys wearing the white hats and the guys wearing the black hats, and the complete lack of human conflict on any true level, drag the book to such a shallow level that it quickly runs aground; just getting to the end is a real chore.
By now you probably have the idea that I am not going to recommend that you rush right out and buy Ride to Glory, but if you do want to check out the story for yourself, I recommend just getting a copy of Jack Chick's notorious anti-evolution tract, Big Daddy. It could have easily served as Johns's first draft.