FICTION: The leader of a religious cult tries to reunite with his ex-wife and daughter.
Fiona Maazel’s second novel is a heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting tale about the transforming power of love. Masquerading as a thriller with randy comedic elements, this new work provokes tears and guffaws, even as its plot sometimes strains credulity. But it is a bold, outsized work that never fails to entertain.
From the beginning of the novel, Thurlow Dan, the charismatic leader of the cultlike Helix movement, a hugely expanding gathering of lonely souls (think L. Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists), is looking for a very specific love he’d once had and lost. Maazel loads the deck against him, his minions and his throng of Helix followers, who seek connection as a way to temper their existential loneliness. She sets in motion an inexorable chain of events that proceeds at breakneck pace — sundering couples, prying apart families and often guaranteeing more misery than that from which Helix’s clamoring isolates are trying to escape.
The inciting action begins in D.C. when Thurlow by chance encounters his ex-wife, Esme, for whom he’s still carrying a torch a decade after their divorce, and their now 10-year-old daughter, Ida. His notoriety has spread, and he’s in the cross hairs of the FBI and the CIA, having implicated himself and his movement with North Korea. He visited that rogue nation and accepted funding from that country’s leaders, who are eager to abet disaffected Americans, hoping to splinter U.S. solidarity.
Despite the success of his rallies and the momentum of the movement, Thurlow’s thoughts are fixated solely on how he can be reunited with his former wife and child — well, almost; he does think some about his T.C.’s, or traveling companions, former prostitutes who ease his transitions into new locales.
For the past decade, Esme has been a government spy. Her present assignment is to shadow her former husband’s movements. Since she, too, has never lost her ardor for “Lo,” she’s glad for the chance to watch out for him. Throughout the novel, the two engage in awkward, sometimes outrageous attempts to forge connections — between themselves and with various oddball others. Maazel skillfully weaves in the back stories of several other pairs; one member of each has become a Helix adherent. Their tales of quotidian misery are leavened with the wryly funny ways they become aligned with Helix. The plot builds to a climax (think Waco and the Branch Davidians) and ends with a semblance of connections recovered, a bittersweet testament to the power of love.
Maazel is a witty and accomplished wordsmith, filling each sentence to the brim with an apt and unusual metaphorical lode. This antic novel with its sober underbelly is testament to Maazel’s inventive and fertile imagination.
Kathryn Lang is a former editor at SMU Press in Dallas.