Book Review: Heroes and Monsters

Josh Riebock writes an incredibly honest, gripping autobiography (the best kind, of course) about his struggles as both a Christian and a human being. If you combine Donald Miller, Chuck Palahniuk, and J.D. Salinger, then here’s the wild creation that bursts forth.

I first heard of Josh Riebock through a quote on Tumblr that went viral, and then I saw that Riebock had written a book. Honestly, my ethnic prejudice thought it would just be another white guy complaining about his first-world-woes and I’m-so-mad-at-church-culture-and-my-daddy, but from the first few pages, I was swept up into a very broken, human story that’s sort of the untold jagged thread in all of us.

From insecurity to grief to rage to love to hatred, Riebock carries you into his struggle and doesn’t hold back on his craziness. It’s everything about you that you wanted to say in church and to your best friend, but were too dang afraid to be that vulnerable.

Riebock peels back every safe layer of Christianese varnish with the skill of a lyrical surgeon, spinning out impressive details with complex nuance and rusty rough edges. I hesitate to call it a “Christian book” because it doesn’t live in the plastic ideal world of spiritual pick-me-up. It breathes erratically in a world of its own, always pulsing and never pretentious nor overly artsy. There’s a scarecrow named Jack (his version of Jesus) and a sassy Socratic cow (his version of the Holy Spirit) and a mess of hateful polluted thoughts, where there are not many happy bowties to wrap things up and where doubts in God don’t end neatly on a platter.

When there are victories, you want to cheer. They are well deserved. I rooted for Riebock. His salvation story, told from the point of view of Jack/Jesus, had me in weeping in a heap. I remember it because I was sitting at Barnes and Noble, embarrassed to be crying between sips of iced coffee. This is the kind of writing that makes you want to write.

At times I found myself aghast at Riebock’s motives and actions — but that’s only because I saw myself in him. I hate being confronted with such a stark mirror, and at the same time it’s awfully liberating. It’s like watching a TV show where the lead character does something completely unlikeable and you throw things, but you’d probably do the same thing in the same place in the same situation. You end up thinking, I’m allowed to talk about this now.

Riebock uses the a-word (abortion). He gets into a situation where he can cheat on his wife (I’ll let you find out what happens). He one day simply decides to hate his father. He resists God at every corner. He grieves over a family death beyond the expiration date (if there is such a thing). But all these events are understandable: because you and me, we are Josh. We are who he is if we were half as honest with ourselves.

By the end I felt I had lived his life. Good books make you feel that way. I know I sound weirdly sentimental, and maybe it’s because I can relate to a young guy’s struggles being a young guy struggling. But without overdoing it: I have to say, you will be this much closer to God and life and people if you throw yourself into Heroes and Monsters. You’ll also see as he sees: that people are neither pure heroes nor villains, but straddle this blurry line in their hearts daily, hoping for light even as they fall to the dark.

Because I was so enthralled by the book, I could hardly find any weak spots.

But a simple word of warning: Since these days we’re so used to blog-post snippets, it’ll take a while to settle into Riebock’s wonderfully detailed prose. While most books with a moving plot pick up the pace and shorten up descriptions, Riebock never eases up on his style. His writing is relentless to the last page, with the same pacing as the first. If you’re only used to blogs — I’m guessing much of Riebock’s audience — then you might have reader’s exhaustion by the mid-point. Hang in there. It’s worth it.

Bottom Line:
I don’t mean to be so hard on other Christian books, but this is a very real book written by an honest man who also happens to be a Christian. It fits into a sort of crazy spiritual category on its own, and is better for it. Whether you’re a new believer, a lover of books, a church veteran, or disillusioned with everything-God, this is a must-read.

Get this book. I’ve already purchased four copies for friends. It’s currently on sale at Amazon.

— J.S.

Choice quotes:

“Every human, Jack says, is both an arsonist and an architect, marked with the thumbprint of good and the claws of evil, breathing both death and life into this world … Then Jack tells me that this world is actually two worlds combined, one world of everything that I hope for and the other world of nothing that I want. This world, Jack says, is the merging of wonder and horror, of twisted and beautiful, comedy and tragedy, a place where both exist and mingle every day. He says that this world is part heaven and part hell, and that every second, inside of me and out, I’m standing at the convergence of the two, at the corner of damned and divine.”

“From the beginning, romance has been more of a gamble than a science, a high-stakes version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. It’s been awkward and complicated, and it’s rarely gone the way I’ve wanted it to go. Chances are, it probably never will. I want love without drama, romance without pain. I want intimacy without vulnerability. I want a guarantee. I want something that doesn’t exist. Maybe we all do. Maybe we’re all chasing unicorns.”

“Laughter is the evidence that we’re still here, the proof that our tragedies will not define us forever. Laughter is the language of the survivor.”

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