The Shining Shining Path

Smoky Mountain News, May 29, 2002

The Shining Shining Path, by Carroll Dale Short
(Montgomery, Alabama: NewSouth Books; trade paper, $17.00 list. ISBN: 1-58838-071-8.)

by Sara Jenkins

If “summer reading” means books that are fun, fast-paced, satisfying, and different from what we read during the year, this debut novel should qualify. I was skeptical about the peach and lime green cover, but the first sentence hooked me.

“By the time the blue Chrysler van carrying the six Tibetan monks finally got around the jackknifed poultry truck on Interstate 80 and found the exit to Kennesaw College, the program chairman at the Pride of the Prairie was in such a state of agitation that she had to go to the bathroom and splash cold water on her face, and, moreover, take the last two Midol she had been saving for Intro to Volleyball at three o’clock that afternoon.”

The loping Southern cadence reminds me of T. R. Pearson, but the plot moves far beyond the rural locale. The first chapter sweeps us into mystery, and by the end of the book, action explodes phantasmagorically in every direction. Along the way are suspense, romance, a cosmic battle between good and evil, and humor both high and low.

Turner, the reluctant hero, is a Vietnam vet who has become a rock-and-roll impresario. He has taken on a strange assignment: driving a band of Tibetan monks around the South to perform their traditional sacred music. From backstage, Turner observes the audiences:

“. . . bland, self-possessed, self-pleasuring Western faces come suddenly upon an outrageous bump of an idea smack in the middle of the smooth, complacent highway of their existence: a race of people [Tibetans] whose artists and athletes, saints and scientists and warriors are one and the same in intent; a civilization whose single transcendent striving is the painstaking eradication of self. The Self, our pampered pet . . . namesake of magazines, theology of television advertising, sweet ringing gloss of exterior life that almost, almost screens out the insistent siren of contradiction and wonder wailing from the delicate underbelly of the universe like a million expiring Met tenors.”

One of the more colorful descriptions of what Buddhism is all about, this says, in essence, that our illusion of being “selves” separate from all else cuts us off from the true joy of life.

The monks’ performance—like the book—embraces the range from the ineffably sweet music of the spheres to sounds that may not be named in, as they say, a family magazine. The author of this book, however, does not flinch from naming it all, for this is a story that unfolds along the full spectrum of human need, self-deception, courage, and extraordinary capacities, including the superhuman.

Among the irresistible the cast of characters, the Tibetan monks are especially endearing, in their simple lightness of spirit, their enigmatic wisdom, their wiles, and their individual quirks. Cassie, the heroine, is no less feisty for being confined to a wheelchair. James Crowe, an African-American whose path crossed Turner’s when they served together in Vietnam, is a genius in super-math, numerical manipulation beyond the bounds of the material plane. Along with other vividly drawn characters, they inhabit a comfortably familiar New South, while the story careers back and forth in time and space.

In a flashback to 1963, Turner and Cassie are idealistic fifteen-year-olds attending a meeting at their country church. The church members discuss a plan to avoid racial integration—in the words of the preacher, “this civil riot business”—by posting guards at the church door to turn away black people. Cassie questions how this fits with what is written in the Bible, but the preacher changes the subject. The next Sunday Cassie takes Turner to the nearby black church, where she responds to the altar call and becomes the only white member. The chapter ends with a heart-wrenching scene, when the preacher from the black church comes to her house with news about the bombing of the 16th Street church in Birmingham, thirty miles away, in which four children were killed.

“The deacons . . . and myself have, ah. . . .” He looked at the floor again. “Lord God, it’s hard for me to say this. . . . We’ve discussed the . . . situation, this, ah, sad way the world is going, and it’s our feeling that it’s not, ah, a propitious time for a church of our color to be attracting attention unduly by, ah . . .”

“Meaning me,” Cassie said. . . .

He dabbed his big handkerchief to the corners of both eyes. “Please, ma’am, understand our hearts. . . . Just for a while . . . till things gets better. It can’t go on like this. This way is death.”

Cassie nodded.

“We’ll pray for you,” the preacher said. “This bad old world needs you.”

Lest these excerpts suggest that the book consists mainly of improbably long sentences, arcane subjects, and the agony of our racial history, let me say that they are balanced by a wealth of other events and themes and leavened with a wonderful wit. The conjunction of Southern and Tibetan cultures, for example, offers rich comic opportunities. The Tibetans’ exposure to American life has been mainly through television, and when a sheriff gives Turner a speeding ticket, one monk, mimicking what he’s seen on “Miami Vice,” pretends to snort cocaine from his palm, while the others shout gleefully, “Mammy Vice! Mammy Vice! ‘Rest this man!”—resulting in a trip to the local jail. The author’s style ranges from a natural effusiveness to linguistic subtlety, making the very process of reading a pleasure, down to the level of single cleverly chosen words.

I laughed, cried, and marveled throughout at Mr. Short’s exuberant imagination. If ever a book was meant for film, surely this is it. How would Hollywood cast it? Billy Bob Thornton, Meg Ryan, and Samuel L. Jackson? Tommie Lee Jones, Julia Roberts, and Forrest Whittaker? Certainly it would feature real Tibetan monks, á la “The Cup,” and special effects á la Steven Spielberg.

“The fast way takes so long you die,” says one of the monks, chiding Turner about the American habit of rushing and thereby missing out on life. Ultimately, The Shining Shining Path raises possibilities of there being far more to life than we ordinarily know—and all of it existing within our own minds. At the same time, it opens our hearts to what we cannot deny, our need for one another, our profound connectedness, our yearning for the truest love.

In the end, I was even won over by the cover. The picture shows a man sunk in thought amid what looks like a Southeast Asian temple, with lotuses and incense and holographic images of Buddhist deities imposed on a Southern landscape. (A note on the jacket identifies it as a painting called “Extreme Southeast Georgia” by Don Cooper, in the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta.) Like the story, the cover embraces the exotic with a personal, close-to-home, heartfelt authenticity. In fact, I would have to say that it’s a perfect cover for a book that is like none I’ve ever read.