"Raking the Dust" by John Biscello

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We amble through Raking the Dust with its first-person narrator, Alex, and none of us seems in much of a hurry. Alex writes a little, drinks a lot, falls for a beautiful, enigmatic singer, and encounters some pretty fantastical stuff. Along the way, author John Biscello treats us to some quirky erudition - we learn the legend of St. Wilgefortis, a bearded female virgin Catholic saint, crucified for disobeying her royal father, but it’s a quote from St. Teresa that really serves as both cautionary signpost and prescription: After describing the soul as a crystal castle of many rooms, she says, “What could be worse that not being at home in your own house? What chance do we have of finding rest outside ourselves if we can’t find peace within?”

This wise sentiment can serve many people but to Alex, our flaneur hero, it legitimizes a lazy self-absorption, unseemly in one of his age. He scrounges out a life in Taos, New Mexico, moving from eviction to eviction, taking the odd writing job and assiduously drinking and drugging himself toward oblivion. The truly arresting developments, physically impossible to us mere mortals, all center around his lady love, Dahlia Jane (DJ to you and me).

I had a hard time pinning down DJ’s dramatic function in Raking the Dust. She spurs our hero to … move to San Francisco so he can … bum around in a place even more expensive than Taos. The action in the avant garde club stretches credulity, as do a number of scenes here, but again, they only seem to lead to Alex’s ultimate estrangement from the girl he loves. That could be exactly the point.

Raking the Dust is not without its charms. Mr. Biscello’s talent reveals itself in a number of details, such as this spot-on observation about a child’s glee at a carnival: “There’s a certain timbre to innocence, when announcing itself, which cannot be duplicated.” And the very offbeat use of lives of the saints to propel his narrative along. But I found myself wishing I had had a shot at editing the book to tighten it up and bring the point into focus. The change in Alex at story’s end, subtle as it is, leaves us up in the air. So many of the other episodes along the way do too, unfortunately.

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