Friday, July 28, 2006

The Mouse Reads a Book

A friend of mine, Daniel Spiro, makes his living as an attorney by busting corporations and others who commit fraud, both at the Dept of Justice, where he has helped to recover over a billion dollars for the Medicare Trust Fund, and previously at the Federal Trade Commission, where he helped close down many telemarketing boilerrooms.

As magnificent as that may seem to us taxpayers, I argue that another of that young man's achievements is worth far more to us than mere dollars and cents. You see, just a few days ago Dan's first novel hit the streets, and the message delivered by that book will, I am sure, enrich its readers' understanding of themselves and their world far more than the finding of a few extra bucks in their pockets ever could. Dan named his book, The Creed Room, and that's exactly what the book is, a place where Dan and his readers can join an array of fictitious characters in a search for a new way to believe, to worship, and ultimately to live. The book is about God.

Dan attended a little talk I made earlier this month to a group of devoted Unitarians. We had lunch afterwards at a restaurant perched on one of the high banks of the Rappahannock in downtown Fredericksburg, he and his daughter Rebecca (a brilliant teenager), milady and I, and a half-dozen or so of the Unitarians. The book wasn't "out" yet, so I could only halfway appreciate the few things Dan said about it. Our conversation was mostly of Spinoza, but Dan did manage to make the point that the book is less a novel than "a novel of ideas." That's the subtitle, "a novel of ideas," and that is precisely what the book is. Oh, there's a plot, even a love angle and a bit of intrigue, but finally the book is not about anything other than the ideas passed back and forth by Dan's characters in "the creed room." The people in the room were brought there by a simple ad placed in The Washington Post by "the Benefactor," a wealthy mystery man who has brought the people together ostensibly to search for a new creed. The Benefactor's real reasons? Well, that's the intrigue part and I would do you no favors by revealing the "punch line."

I've known Dan for about three years. I met him at the Spinoza Group in DC, and while I was always moderately impressed by his insights into some of the sticky issues raised by the speakers, I was in no way prepared for the depth of knowledge and -- yes, I would say -- wisdom he presents in The Creed Room. I was made further unaware of what I was in for by the first 15 pages or so of the book. There were a few cliches he could have avoided and a couple of passive sentences that his editor ought to have had him rewrite, but now that I have finished the book, I think maybe those few pages were purposefully left unpolished just so we would take the main character -- Dan's spokesman -- to be one of us, and not just another academic spouting erudite and incomprehensible jargon. After those few pages, the book takes off in a whirlwind of ideas and beliefs that left me wondering how in the name of heaven Daniel Spiro ever found the time to finish Harvard Law School while amassing the wealth of religious lore and philosophical understanding he communicates in his book.

The people gathered in the Benefactor's mansion come from all the walks of religious life, from atheist, to redneck backslider, to new age mystic. Befitting Dan's own persuasion and the role of the Jews in shaping the major western religions, he shows us several shades of Judaism and brief sketches of several of the heroic rabbis who put together, with their wisdom and the example of their lives, the core beliefs of their religion. But the strength of the book lies in its (almost) even-handed exposure of the different belief systems. (The Christian fundamentalists are the only group to which Dan gives the back of his hand, though not his closed fist.) When the group of creed searchers finally reaches consensus and presents its new creed to the Benefactor, we are able to see at work the great lawyer that Dan must be. He presents the case for the new creed in a startlngly clear and convincing oration, as if he were speaking to a jury of our peers. We are given the "story," the evidence, and the conclusive recommendations in language that is as eloquent, and yet as simple, as an attorney's plea to a jury must be if his client is to be found -- in this case -- acceptable as a way of life for rational people.

The Creed Room is a must read for any man, woman, or child who is ready to listen to reason. [Available now, the Aegis Press, 352 pages, $18.95]


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