April 2014

James Orbesen


Gideon's Confession by Joseph Peterson

Joseph G. Peterson's third novel, Gideon's Confession, tells a very specific kind of coming-of-age story. In short, the book is about the burden of freedom, the difficult task of deciding what one should do with oneself. To "do something with" one's life is a funny way to phrase it, I always thought. Should we view life as a mere tool, something with which to "do" something?

It's also a question asked only by a lucky few. Choosing what one wants to do with one's life is a luxury, the privilege of a small elite, rather than the "right" that it's come to be perceived as in the United States ("the pursuit of happiness"). The eponymous main character of Gideon's Confession lives a life of total freedom. Gideon, unlike most citizens of this country, has a specific type of freedom (and hence, a specific type of coming-of-age). He receives a new check from his wealthy uncle each month, which releases him from the economic restraints that prohibit most of his peers from following the path of their own choosing. The burden of this kind of freedom can be extreme, and Gideon proves to be one of the weakest and most indecisive people to have been dealt this privileged card.

Gideon's handouts are always accompanied by the same request from his uncle: the elder man wants his nephew to use this money (or, more accurately, the freedom it enables) to form a "plan," a cohesive structure and trajectory for his life. Gideon explains his uncle's obsession with "planning" as a product of the man's experience in the great depression and World War II. Gideon's uncle, whose life was shaped by politics and economics, wants the best possible life for his nephew. Gideon, though, who has no grand global narrative to get swept up in, ends up drifting through aimless days, trapped in his own anxieties. Alas, Gideon's only "structure" tends to involve the local tavern, the horse track, and, occasionally, a strip club.

The first half of the novel follows Gideon through the day-to-day of his empty life. He buys things he doesn't need, he stays up all hours drinking, he wastes his afternoons at the racetrack, and he smokes almost two packs a day. In short, Gideon has ended up living a lush life, rather than an enriching one. There is, throughout the book, a very religious undertone. Catholic symbolism, which pops up on most pages, points readers toward the possibility of redemption for the main character. The lower and lower he gets, the more overtly religious the tone of the book becomes.

For example, there's a section around halfway through the novel in which Gideon describes his disillusionment with the drug that once kept him alive: alcohol. He expresses an admiration for those who don't drink, a type of person that he used to think of as somehow deficient. But now, when he's close to the very bottom, Gideon can't help seeing the beauty in neither needing nor wanting booze: "I used to make fun of teetotalers as if they were religious fanatics in an era bereft of god. But how I admire the hell out of them now." In freedom, Gideon has become a slave to his desires.

Redemption eventually comes to Gideon embodied in the almost too-good-to-be-true figure of Claire, a beautiful, driven, and kind woman who somehow falls in love with the maudlin, solipsistic Gideon. Claire's family wealth acts as a foil for Gideon's economic situation: both Claire and Gideon are free from financial worry, though Claire wants to "do something" with her life while Gideon seeks to destroy his.

There is a theme of use in Gideon's Confession. What is one to do with oneself? To what use should a comfortable life be put? Gideon makes reference to his English degree a few times, which has come to signify the "uselessness" of a liberal arts education. "I'm an English major," he says, "not an inventor. I don't have an entrepreneurial bone in my body." It turns out that Gideon has not even recognized any potential abstract benefits of his education: he seems to lack insight into his particular situation. The answers to all of Gideon's problems are not out of his reach, though we constantly find him making bad decision after bad decision.

Gideon's freedom from economic necessities ends up shackling him to his desires and, hence, forces him into a life devoid of meaning. Peterson shows us the sadness that textures a life lived for "fun," for the fulfillment of bodily needs rather than spiritual ones. Though Gideon, like any good Catholic, finds redemption in the act of confession.

Gideon's Confession by Joseph G. Peterson
Switchgrass Books
ISBN: 978-0875807027
130 pages