Pharoni, a novel by Colin Dodds, reviewed by Aaron Lee Moore

Thanks to the residual and resounding success of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, part of me now wonders if we’re now in for a resurrected trope of resurrected characters in literature. This is a sticky and risky wicket. Though with the notable exception of the biblical Christ, in most works of literature the loss we feel when one of our favorite characters is killed off is often undermined and subverted by the deus ex machina of resurrection. In re-watching the TV series Game of Thrones, the mutinous stabbing of Jon Snow now strikes me as just a cheap and shocking farce. Furthermore, the gravity of a character’s self-sacrifice may also be undermined and subverted through resurrection. Gandalf the Grey’s resurrection in The Two Towers as Gandalf the White undermines his self-sacrifice in neutralizing the balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Even in the fantasy genre, the resurrection device is always in danger of coming across as just a cheap storytelling device.

Thankfully, this is not the case with Colin Dodds’ latest novel, Pharoni, because Dodds boldly opens the novel describing the death of a thirty-six-year-old guy by the name of Harry. Then the narrator nonchalantly informs us Harry later came back from the dead. Okay, now I’m interested, and here Dodds succeeds in employing resurrection as a nifty supernatural hook that kept me eagerly reading. Nothing is undermined or subverted because we never knew much about the resurrected character to begin with. Much like the biblical Christ, Harry becomes an inspirational figure in the world, a champion of the poor who speaks in riddles. Actually, the narrative satirizes the notion of a modern resurrection because we gradually see how Harry’s modern gospel, written by his friend, devolves into just a trendy and vacuous self-help text, though immensely popular and financially successful. The juxtaposition of an ancient and archaic genre, like a gospel written according to the literary requirements of a modern era, becomes a source of humor, particularly funny and apropos for struggling writers: “The publisher kept kicking it back, asking for miracles, fitness tips, and likability. […] To me, it was like if the Christian church fathers said nice story, but we want to see more fishing.” The apparent edifying efficacy of this wildly successful self-help gospel is further undermined in two major ways. First, Harry was a weight lifter and fitness nut and the gospel supposedly extolled the virtues of physical fitness linked with spirituality; yet, following the publication of the gospel we see plainly the hypocrisy of the gospel-writer who becomes morbidly obese when his feelings of self-loathing start to kick in: “I had gained weight—gotten too fat to wear pants at home. It was a bad look for a mystic—bogged down in matter.” Second, the gospel is further undermined by the gradual moral decline of the gospel-writing main character who eventually commits a terrible crime. The redemption of this character is questionable and ambiguous, which I found satisfying, regarding this as a bold book of elaborate and well-crafted nuance.

Pharoni is a wild ride rife with authentic characters, each with a well-crafted and well-paced arc where we witness the spiritual journey from struggling and starving artist rags to corporatist riches. Dodds introduces these spiritually and materially bereft characters first in a bar mourning the death of their friend Harry—who possibly committed suicide—all of whom are confronted by the prospect of a desolate middle age where none of their dreams have been actualized: “Middle age was pressing upon us—we’d never be wunderkinds, and it was getting less likely that we’d do anything mildly surprising.” Through this journey the author unveils the sorry state of the contemporary American dream where most success stories boil down to unscrupulous selling out and compromising one’s principles. Furthermore, the novel has a great deal to say about income inequality and poverty. In one morbidly humorous and memorable scene, one of the characters is forced to dismantle and sell off his family’s ancestral mausoleum, literally digging up and robbing his own family’s grave just to get by. As one character declares, “Let’s desecrate the dead—no one ever worries about desecrating the living.”

Stylistically, the dialogue is pithy and witty, always upbeat, tastefully laden with bold profanity spoken by believable, realistic characters. Dodds often employs odiferous imagery in an interesting manner, particularly memorable in the scene entailing the dismantling of the ancestral mausoleum. The experimental structure of Pharoni is also intriguing—dialogue presented in the form of a play or screenplay spliced into the novel as a hybrid, in the same manner as Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun. Hence, Pharoni could easily be adapted into a film. Not since Fight Club have I encountered a novel of such energy and passion.

Pharoni, by Colin Dodds. Dodds Amalgamated, September 2022. 392 pages. $20.20, paper.

Aaron Lee Moore is an Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Comparative and World Literature at Sichuan University. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the print literary journal Floyd County Moonshine and Managing Editor of Comparative Literature: East & West. His poetry chapbook, The Snapping of the Stick (2020), is available from Finishing Line Press and Amazon. His work has appeared in Appalachian Journal, Cold Mountain Review, Southern Literary Journal, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, Comparative Literature: East & West, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and other publications. 

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