Saturday, June 13, 2009

“At Journey’s End…”: A Review of Timekeeper, by John Atkinson

(2008, Fisher King Press,

By Joey Madia

Timekeeper is a modern parable, a journey of “re-imagined events” processed through the author’s memory onto the page. Part Kerouac’s On the Road, part Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, and all soul and spirit, John Atkinson shares with us the story of an Everyman hero who searches for the one thing most precious to a man—

His name.

Johnnyboy, who is unable to read, is 14 when the book opens. After another beating at the hands of the abusive father he calls Bugdaddy (who has already popped his eardrum with a slap and beaten him with a fanbelt), he takes to the road, heading physically and metaphorically westward from Virginia, in search of enlightenment.

Being “of the earth” in both his illiteracy and his part–Native American blood, Johnnyboy is full of metaphorical expressions. Speaking about Bugdaddy, he says to God (through Moses): “That man needs to be shot with sheep sh*t and sent to hell for stinking.” It should be noted that as Johnnyboy matures over the course of the chapters, his language becomes more literal, with metaphorical expressions diminishing until the final chapters, when his journey circles back to a place of balance between the best of what he was and the promise of what he yet will be.

On his cross-country trip he meets plenty of trouble and plenty of friends, all of whom spiral out from the central hub of his search like the multicultural spokes of a wheel. Early on, there is Chicken Bone, the African-American who he visits before leaving home; Simon and Minna, the kind Jewish couple who are heartbroken when he takes to the road too soon; and the pivotal character of Chief, a Native American who helps Johnnyboy on his spiritual quest by giving him mescal buttons and a new name (“Timekeeper”) before sending him to seek the Sacred Mountain.

On his way he meets the “great power” in the form of Check, a yellow-eyed and ill-tempered dog who becomes Timekeeper’s traveling companion, protector, and guide. As Timekeeper made his gas and food money odd-jobbin’ along the way, I began to think of George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, as Check’s ornery disposition makes things uncomfortable for his friend. Following this connection, the culminating scenes between the two near book’s end take the Of Mice and Men framework and turn it on its ear in provocative ways.

At this point, it’s important to spend some words about the Sacred Mountain in questing literature and how it resonates in Timekeeper. From Carlos Castaneda’s relationship with Don Juan to Black Elk’s Harney Peak and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s groundbreaking film Holy Mountain, the idea of the axis mundi (center of the world) as the connecting point between the higher and lower realms and the quest to get there and make the climb play a central role and Timekeeper honors this traditional in fine fashion. Because Johnnyboy has been ridiculed and/or beaten down by the three pillars of society—his family, his school, and his church—he has no choice but to look outside these societal structures for meaning and his purpose, or “name.”
His journey to the Sacred Mountain culminates with his arrival in Chapter 13. With all of the artistry and insight of Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Wade Davis, and Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Atkinson relates Timekeeper’s mescal-induced journey into the higher realms. This is a chapter you’ll want to read twice, as it represents the axis mundi of not only the narrator’s quest, but the book itself, as afterward Timekeeper takes to the road with Check once again to try and find Chief. Having received his visions, he wants help in making meaning of them, part of which will be receiving a new name.

As Timekeeper gets closer to California, Atkinson introduces his narrator to a new set of characters who subtly reinforce the changes at hand. Honoring the spiritual maxim that we “get what we need and meet who we must,” Timekeeper meets a voracious reader named Pete as well as Jeff and Martha, who represent the much longed-for balance of body and mind—Jeff is a second grade dropout who is an ace mechanic and Martha has a Ph.D.

I have no wish to tip the reader any further to the events that await Timekeeper as he arrives in the West. Each experience, each new person met, and each all-too-necessary death extends and strengthens all that I have thus far highlighted and, at journey’s end, we know that Timekeeper must begin again.

John Atkinson has shared a much-needed and vibrant story with us, through both embracing the spirit as it has been explored in the past and furthering its applicability to our own lives through his own particular lens.

I look forward to reading more.

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