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Filtering by Tag: Bryan Bliss

Review: No Parking at the End Times

Amy Peterson

ows_142747221572907 No Parking at the End Times Bryan Bliss Greenwillow Books, 2015

When do you give up on someone?

In Bryan Bliss’s haunting debut novel No Parking at the End Times, twins Abigail and Aaron don’t agree on an answer to that question.

The book opens in San Francisco, ten minutes before the end of the world, the twins and their parents kneeling in Brother John’s church. Abby, the narrator, prays furiously, half-hoping her faith won’t be in vain, half-hoping it will.

Of course, when the world doesn’t end, Abby’s existence in the realm of childhood innocence ends quite definitively.

Several months before the end of the world, Abby’s family had been happy, lower-middle-class residents of North Carolina. Some time after Abby’s dad lost his job, he began following the radio preacher Brother John, selling off their possessions one by one in order to contribute to the end-times preacher’s “ministry.” Ultimately, they sell their house and move across the country, where they live in their van, praying daily at Brother John’s church. When the world fails to end as predicted, Abby’s dad’s faith is unchanged. Enthralled with the spiritually abusive cult leader, he even sells the van and turns the money over to him.

Though her own faith in God is deeply shaken, Abby refuses to give up on her dad, expecting him to come to his senses and take the family home to North Carolina. But Aaron is certain that they can no longer rely on their parents, and tries to convince Abby that they should leave their parents and take the bus to their uncle. I don’t want to give too much away, but as the twins broker their escape from the cult, they make friends with a group of local homeless kids and become embroiled in new conflicts before finding a way out.

In prose that is spare, certain, and lyrical—an economic style that matches the characters’ environment, no frills to cover the truth—Bliss tells a story of exceptional circumstances with universal relevance. Realistic teenage dialogue and a strong, reliable narrator anchor the story, which covers traditional YA territory (loss of innocence and conflict with parents) while also deftly and sympathetically negotiating larger social themes of homelessness, poverty, and religion.

I didn’t feel sure, as I ended the book, who had been right: was Abby correct to refuse to leave her parents behind, or was Aaron right that they would have to save themselves? I wanted a more conclusive answer. When is it ok to give up on someone—especially someone who has begun to perpetuate a cycle of abuse—spiritual, physical, or otherwise? When does love equal staying, and when must it mean to leave? After all, when your father’s captivity to an abusive cult leader leaves you homeless, shouldn’t you give up on him?

Maybe the closest Bliss comes to suggesting an answer is in The Trumpet Man. A homeless man in Golden Gate Park, the Trumpet Man sings simply, “I am bound!” And being bound means many things. We are bound to our families. We are bound to people who make mistakes, who hurt just as they’ve been hurt. Even the binds that should be cut can’t ever be fully loosed. But we are also bound for a Promised Land, where hurts will be redeemed, unjust inequalities will be set right, and relationships will be restored. No Parking at the End Times points us with hope toward that land.

Bright and Shining

Bryan Bliss

MICHIGAN BAND I finished revising my debut novel and graduated from an MFA program in the same month. I am tired. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. Of course, one of the first apocryphal rules you learn when you start writing is do it every day. Put that butt in the chair and fashion yourself after the Postal Service. Snow? Sleet? Debilitating fatigue? Doesn’t matter. Put those words down, son.

So when my friend Sara asked me what I was doing for Lent, I laughed. This was the first year in over ten where I wouldn’t be a church worker and I was sleeping in on Sundays like it was my job. While I appreciate the discipline of Lent – I’d taught it how many times? – I was on sabbatical from anything that wasn’t Mad Men or Game of Thrones. And that included God.

Thomas Merton went to Gethsemane to remove himself from the world, to seek God with integrity. As everyone knows, the world came knocking on the doors of his monastery in the way of literary fame. Merton was stuck between his desires for solitude and – this is my assumption – a calling to write. But then, on a routine trip to the doctor in Louisville, he had a vision. Him, being held up by (and inextricably connected to) the world he once hoped to spurn. He described the experience as inevitable, saying, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I eventually texted Sara back and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll say the Lord’s Prayer every night.” It was something I’d never done. And if I’m being honest – it was a discipline I had no real interest in keeping. But much like the pull I feel every time I walk past my laptop – like there is something I should be doing – once I was lying in bed I couldn’t escape words. Our Father… I don’t claim a Merton-like moment of transformation. Everything I learned was a lesson I already knew. Yet, sometimes it is good to be reminded that the work will always be there when you’re ready. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we are bright and shining.

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

The Forced Pause, the Gift of Rest

Bryan Bliss

Winter Weather

I walked to the grocery store in hopes of finding a power outlet to charge my laptop. Or better: a rogue bit of Wi-Fi that might allow me to e-mail my editor and assure her that, despite the 18 inches of snow being dumped onto our small town, I would be making my deadline. It was not a peaceful walk, the sort you’d expect as snow slowly pillowed on the ground and the entire world went quiet.

No. I went to the store looking for time – looking to work. But all that awaited me was a couple of college kids wearing Adventure Time pajama bottoms and a cashier who kept checking the windows and reminding everybody who came through her line that she – emphatically – “did not need this.”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel said time was the first thing God made holy. A day. The Sabbath. And yet, most of us are extraordinarily bad at accepting the gift of rest. Artists, it seems, have this affliction in spades. There is always one more sentence to be fine-tuned. One more stroke to apply. The reasons to work – to tinker – are countless.  The world applauds busyness. We are encouraged to reject, as Barbara Brown Taylor calls it, the grace of simply “sitting on the porch” because “a field full of weeds will not earn anyone's respect.”

As I walked home, I noticed the light. It was inverted, turning the night into a strange, off-color day. I was alone and frustrated to be going back to a house that had no power, that forced rest upon me like a sickness. But as I walked – as the mounting snow forced my pace slower – I couldn’t help but notice the silence of the empty streets. The sound of my breathing, heavy in the cold.

(Photo by Charles Arbogast)

God's Not Dead

Bryan Bliss


The trailer for God’s Not Dead appeared on my Facebook timeline between a Buzzfeed quiz about Friday Night Lights and a Bruce Springsteen video. I took the quiz (I’m Landry Clarke, so you know) and listened to The Promised Land, trying to convince – or maybe distract – myself away from this movie. Even before I saw the trailer, I could make a guess at the plot.

Instead of asking a person to explore the mystery of faith, films like God’s Not Dead lay a straight and flawless road, painted over with harsh blacks and impossible whites – colors designed to make us comfortable. More importantly, they encourage Christians to ignore the twisting and turning deer trails that sprout off this main road. Trails that lead one through the mud, the murk. Places to get lost.

Could anyone argue that Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story A Good Man is Hard to Find might better end with the Misfit accepting Christ? To have him wave the family off, a pleasant sunset falling behind him? For some, yes. But for those concerned with producing art and living a faith with integrity – that actually represents our place in a sometimes savage, sometimes beautiful world – these knotted paths are the birthplace of transformation. They don’t avoid risk. They force it upon you. It is that tension, that real moment of grace and redemption, which Christian art hopes to harness.

A writing mentor once told me the worst thing a story can be is about something. I would add that, even when we know the ending, a story should also hide the turns. God’s Not Dead, like so much of Christian art, chooses to do neither. It plays to its audience, giving another boost to the myth of the embattled Christian while reassuring them that everything is okay. Cathartic as that might be, it isn’t true. And if Christian art doesn’t have truth – if it becomes yet another escapist trope – then what’s the point?