Ted Morrissey’s Weeping with an Ancient God is a fictional revision of Herman Melville’s own telling of his time spent amongst cannibals. The story begins with Melville and his friend Toby trapped on an island, unable to speak the native language, and unaware of what exactly the cannibals want from them. They over time try to devise a plan to escape.
Morrissey does a great job at the beginning with establishing the isolation of the main character. Immediately the reader is introduced to heavy sensory detail as Melville awakens to darkness and heat, pain throbbing in his leg, remembering whom he now lives among. This tone of darkness is carried throughout, with only small dollops of light. The darkness is found not just amongst Melville’s relationships with the cannibals, or his entrapment on the island, but within his own mind as well. Morrissey lays out a quick page of exposition about how Melville and Toby have come to find themselves on the island. This is done effectively and doesn’t impact the near flawless pace.
Considering the plot takes place some time after Melville has already arrived on the island, it doesn’t feel as if the reader is being tossed into some situation in complete confusion. The story takes its time as Melville goes about the people, trying to understand their customs and what they want from him. There’s always an understanding of what’s happening and who is where, and the movement of the characters flows at a comfortable speed. This also applies to the use of dialogue throughout. None of it feels useless; it all in some way helps the story progress. Only in the last couple chapters does the story lose its rhythm with its climax.
Through Melville, the reader gets strong visuals of the other characters and place. Characters are introduced in great physical description, nothing is left out from head to toe. The beauty of the island (and its few hidden horrors) are also shown in great detail; from the array of colors, vegetation, old bones, and wildlife that are amongst the people, there is rarely a moment where the reader could question what something looks like. The gestures of the characters are also very clear; whether it involves how someone eats a piece of meat or how someone attacks another, the movement is clear and to the point.
With these strong details and a mostly well-balanced pace, the reader is able to dive into the isolation that Melville suffers from. Melville’s questioning of the humanity of these cannibals, and of himself, is apparent through the dialogue (internal and external), and by what he witnesses. The writing here is done with solid purpose to make a concise story. An interesting read for those who are already fans of Melville and are interested in seeing a side of the man behind Moby Dick. In Weeping with an Ancient God there is a full story with no detail to miss. Other than an ending chapter where things could be slowed down slightly, this is an enticing read. It stands as a great little work of existential crisis and isolation, of a man lost at sea.
August 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$12.99, paperback, 162 pages
—Reviewed by Michael Pementel