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Reviews Wed Sep 06 2006

Feature: Sons of the Rapture by Todd Dills

This is a story about fathers and sons. This is a story about the past and the present, about wrongs done and rights attempted. This is a story about having no regrets and waiting for the end. This is Billy Jones's story.

Billy Jones, a young man living in Chicago, is at the center of this story focusing on his South Carolina family. Told in three parts and in several voices, Todd Dills's Sons of the Rapture offers a bevy of characters that are as loud and brash as they are desperate and downtrodden. In the first chapter alone we're introduced to five different points of view. Billy starts us out on the journey, but soon we meet Artichoke Heart (A.H.), a sometime hit man, and sometime frontman who performs at neighborhood festivals. Billy and A.H. meet at the Taste of Kedzie where he also meets Elsa, a French girl who enters and departs from Billy's life, eventually reentering as a sort of personal savior. Although we're told the tiara-wearing musician was born William Harmony Jones – no relation to Billy – A.H. never reveals why he's adopted his stage moniker for everyday life, but we never really have reason to question the choice. A character that daily sports pageantry headwear and claims to have carried out the will of a Brazilian gangster needs little explanation for his choice in names. Albert Ledbetter is the longtime friend of Johnny Jones, Billy's father, and acts as caretaker to Bobby Jones, Billy's younger brother, who is spending his days in prison for the murder of their mother years ago. Rounding out this first section is Clarence Hickman, a man in a yellow pickup truck, driving towards the Rapture.

All of these characters are ones you're never quite sure are telling the absolute truth. Billy and his father, Johnny, have a special flair for dressing up a story to suit their needs, and so great are their powers of persuasion that they have no trouble convincing others of these false truths. While Billy tells Elsa a disturbing, invented story about a friend who lost his genitalia in the war, he sneaks in the truth about his mentally handicapped brother who killed their mother, making it impossible to know when his stories are real and when they're elaborate fiction. Johnny, too, skews the truth in favor of his needs. When he learns of his mother's affair with Thorpe Storm, a bigoted senator who continues to use racially charged epithets well into Billy's day, he construes the facts to date the affair as occurring before his birth, thus furthering the hatred of the man he's taken upon himself to label as his father. Says Albert of Johnny's stubbornness in spite of all the traits he shares with Jeremiah Jones, his true father: "Two blues won't make a brown, but logic be damned: the young man Johnny determined he'd prove the falsity to the world in ways counter to pointing out the laws of trait inheritance, or so he'd said, and I was pulled along by the force of his adamant nature, a persuasion inherent in his insanity quite impossible for my naïve mind to resist."

The second section of the novel belongs entirely to the persuasive, present-day Johnny. Rich from his father's inheritance and having started monthly payments to Albert for checking in on his jailed son, this is Johnny's life with his cowboy-like friends, drinking, doing drugs, and hooking up with a feisty woman who bears a disturbing resemblance to his dead wife. It seems as though Johnny's only wish is to while away the rest of his life, but it's not until we reach the third chapter that we learn where he's going. Back in Billy's point of view, the third section finds our narrator drunk and out of a job when Albert visits him to deliver the message that his father is coming to see him, a proclamation that Billy doesn't quite believe and deems a "prophetic event." The event does occur and with it comes all the chaos and the glory that follows the Jones' lives, with Johnny leading a herd of cattle down the Dan Ryan Expressway, a literal interpretation of the city's "Cows on Parade." The question, then, is whether this is the Rapture Billy and Johnny have been waiting for.

Although the structure of the novel may leave some a bit confused – there's no apparent reason why the first part is told in so many points of view while the second and third parts are singular in thought – the story is, thankfully, interesting enough and Dills's writing is engaging enough to keep us wanting to know more. The transfer of viewpoints in the first chapter works because Dills gives us enough time to get to know each character before switching to another. He doesn't just give us snapshots, but portraits of his characters, including the city of Chicago among them. As much as the reader can picture Billy in his confederate gray topcoat, walking with his hands shoved in the pockets, shoulders hunched up around his ears, worn down jeans and shoes, portraying himself as someone who either has little money or wants to appear that way, the city is given as much personalization. "The sterile angles of the Chicago grid," Dills writes, "the little blocks of neighborhoods, the right angles, the 45-degree angles of diagonal flow streets that connected them all, the fine curve of the expressway gray and desolate and jammed on its way downtown." This is a story about that desolation, that connection, those little blocks that bring all of these vivid characters together, all awaiting the Rapture and what it will bring to them.

Todd Dills is the editor and publisher of The2ndHand, a quarterly broadsheet offering the latest in local writing. Featherproof Books will celebrate the publication of Sons of the Rapture with a release party on September 14 at the Hideout.

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