Buddhism for Western ChildrenFiction
Reviewed By Eric Maroney
- University of Iowa Press (2018)
- 284 pages
Kirstin Allio dives headfirst into her off-kilter and nontraditional novel, Buddhism for Western Children. The novel is a showcase for Allio’s many talents, including her incisive use of language. Allio has a story to tell, but the anomalous poetics of her prose is the guiding light of the narrative, both revealing and concealing elements of plot—essentially beguiling the reader to turn the page.
She accomplishes such skilled word crafting in the face of a rather straightforward story. The parents of a family of four are increasingly pulled into the orbit of a Guru of Russian ancestry. They move to his compound and are plunged into the world of the Guru’s making. He considers himself God, and throughout the novel, his bizarre aphorisms, eccentric charisma, and clever manipulation keep the people of the cult under his dizzying spell.
The story unfolds through the eyes of the family’s teenage son, Daniel. Early in the novel he observes:
[H]is parents began to form half-secret, self-proud smiles: they claimed to be astonished by the sudden, strange revelation of being in love with Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich, the Guru. Ray [Daniel’s father] said that there was this feeling like being plugged into a wall socket. But that was the old language. The new language? In His world-weary and His crazy-fool and His divine fury, this guy was a madman who was mad for them.
Allio’s Guru employs this new language—the manic, crazed lexicon of the “Living God”— to great creative advantage. His language tends to reference only himself, his actions, and his thoughts; he creates a world that begins and ends with him. We are told that the “Guru’s love was real. Wood. Spit. Skin. Muscle. His love called forth their love, had they ever loved before this? A million pale maggots that could turn a fallen tree trunk into jelly. Love turned death to jelly.”
Daniel is taken under the wing of the Guru, who senses the boy’s latent spiritual potential. The Guru renames him Jubal and endows him with extensive power within the group. For example, Jubal is tasked to interview the Guru’s wives, for he has many wives, just as “Krishna had a thousand gopis. . . .” Jubal is given intimate access to their lives as he records their stories and soon learns that the Guru browbeats his wives and worse; he withholds food and sleep from them, and he forbids them to live with their real husbands or the children from those unions. The members of the cult invest the Guru’s actions and words with divine import, even as he claims that no one but himself needs marriage or sex, and he “crow[s] that He had enough wives for everyone.”
Jubal absorbs the Guru’s teachings, which shift according to the latter’s whims. They come in many forms, usually in aphorisms such as “this is the Way that I Teach. . . . In love, in poemform, in Open Love Letter. . . . I teach in Inspired Garbage.” But in time, Jubal’s privileged position, his powers of keen observation, and his intelligence begin to corrode the Guru’s hold over him. Jubal realizes that Guru is playing his people against each other, and this puts Jubal on guard; after this revelation, when he sees the Guru act or speak, he often wonders “What was the Guru’s act here?”
Further into the novel, the Guru’s commands become odder still. The followers are informed they must not drink any liquid at meals. These decrees come and go; some are relatively innocuous, such as “a Celebration lavish with cashews and dried apricots, marked by butter, made into ghee. No milk, we can’t have milk. But we can have butter!” But eventually they grow more sinister.
The Guru proclaims “Enough of this austerity, bullshit, asceticism, let us reveal to one another our scatological material natures.” He begins plans that he calls periods, such as “The Period of the Loving Monkeys,” where the Guru no longer confines his sexual advances to adult females. At the behest of the Guru, his chief lieutenant proclaims, “The grownups are fossilized in their unhappiness. . . . Let us now turn to the children.” Jubal is aware of the implications of these words, for as the Guru demands this, he sees his younger sister “up in front on the ladies’ side, sitting like a girl guarding a basket.” Jubal’s sister is sexually abused by the Guru’s chief lieutenant, and then by the Guru himself. All of these crimes are justified in the Guru’s language of spiritual growth and mentorship. But for Jubal, at least, the Guru’s spell has been broken.
The rest of the novel focuses on Jubal, who flees his family and cult, yet still labors under the Guru’s legacy. He continues to believe that the Guru is divine, but he lives alone, away from the community, in a half-life between worlds. He is searching for his own story and struggles to find his own voice above and beyond that of the Guru.
After a run-in with the law, he is forced by the State of Nevada into therapy, and he quickly falls in love with his young, attractive doctor. This is no ordinary form of transference, as this woman has a direct connection to the cult, and Jubal seeks her out, at least subconsciously. Their growing expressions of love and concern dance around the common core of the harrowing inheritance of the Guru. Even though Jubal is still bound to the Guru he now hates, his connection to his therapist lays bare his need for freedom and his desire to understand how his indoctrination has contributed to the formation of an empty young man who is seeking what we all desire: a narrative of our own making.
As the title suggests, the Guru’s religion aims to make dependent and abused children of all his members. At the end of the novel, the reader gets the sense that Jubal is breaking free of the Guru’s enforced dependence, beginning his life once again.
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York, with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, was published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2019.