By Philip Gulley. Center Street, 2015. 260 pages. $24/hardcover; $14.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Phil Gulley’s latest novel, A Lesson in Hope, lives up to its title, providing both its main character—Sam Gardner, the conflict-avoidant, generally well-meaning, sometimes exaggerating but always rising-to-the-occasion pastor of Hope Friends Meeting—and its readers with reasons to believe that life turns around right after all is said and done. Bedecked with Gulley’s trademark homespun hyperbole and irony, the book lovingly takes to task a rich cast of small town, programmed meeting Quaker familiars—from evangelical naysayers to overzealous house and grounds men, a smarmy yearly meeting superintendent, and a holier-than-thou senior pastor.
Sam has recently relocated to Hope, Ind., coming to pastor the small meeting there after having been shredded in the Quaker religion-cultural wars at Harmony Friends Meeting, his former pastorate. When an elderly parishioner, Olive Charles, wills her entire estate to the meeting—a house, a 1979 Ford Granada, and a bank account that clocks in just above $800,000—the relatively sleepy Hope Friends Meeting starts to shaking, as its members and attenders begin championing various ideas about how to spend the windfall fortune. Sam, of course, finds himself at the bullseye of this target shooting, all the while thinking it would be good to get himself a nice raise out of it.
Gulley certainly peoples the novel with some stereotypes. Regina Charles, who hasn’t seen her aunt Olive in 20 years, crawls into Hope in an alcoholic haze, demanding the fortune is rightfully hers and bringing suit through an over-hair-gelled slick of a TV-ad lawyer, appropriately named Todd Cameron. The yearly meeting superintendent, catching wind of the Charles largesse, directs his finance committee minions to adopt a new policy that will force local meetings to donate 10 percent of their holdings to the larger body. There’s even an attractive veterinarian in town, an occasional attender at Hope Friends Meeting related to the clerk, who sets her French braid at happily married Sam, asking him to take midday walks and offering to bake him pies, for which he has a particular fondness.
But the cookie-cutter characters only play supporting roles in this small town comedy. Although the novel rightfully eschews dramatic revelations and road-to-Damascus transformations, we see a number of more complicated characters working their way through—in honest, journeyman fashion—life’s quibbles and foibles, thereby growing into greater goodness. Ruby Hopper, the clerk, wends her way skillfully through various gatherings to keep her compatriots’ bickering from metastasizing into permanent hatred and estrangement. At one point, she performs an inspired bit of eldering, firmly but lovingly calling out one member’s false claim of divine leading. Sam’s wife, Barbara, navigates Gretchen Weber’s (the amply braided veterinarian) advances on Sam with grace and an aplomb that suffers no foolishness. And Sam—though fantasizing (mildly) about Gretchen’s physical blessings, about escaping the conflict in Hope by decamping to a very well-remunerated pastoral position in North Carolina, or about finding an easy remedy for his father’s hoarding in the form of an arsonist—recognizes temptation for what it is; discovers the advantages of his older parents following him from Harmony to Hope; and counsels Wayne and Doreen Newby, longtime members of the meeting, through marital silliness and jealousy.
As Sam and Barbara pilot their way through the emotional danger zones of their parents/in-laws swooping into town for a now-permanent visit and other troubles, so the meeting grapples appropriately with Olive’s bequest (with the help of a little divine luck). Lessons are learned and Hope springs, if not eternally then at least temporally, with the signs of a growing congregation.
Gulley’s novel is sure to entertain. Its expansive set of characters—and many of them are true “characters”—creates multiple opportunities for bemusement. Their all-too-believable imperfections loom a bit larger than life in the book, but just enough to point a finger back in the reader’s own direction. Friends, in particular, will find well-polished looking glasses here, mirrors that reflect some of our peculiarities even as they enlighten the more general human propensities of envy, desire, and a willingness to judge others by standards we’re unwilling to apply so readily to ourselves. The story delivers true comedy in the classical sense: a disruption (the Olive Charles bequest) in the social equilibrium sets a group of good-hearted, human bumblers amiss; chaos ensues, majorly in the form of squabbling over the money and minorly in marital conflicts; but order is happily restored through an unexpected marriage that promises hope and new life and the central character’s facing of those little, niggling weaknesses that plague our dreams and sometimes, more perniciously, our waking lives.