West of Jesus
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
US First Edition Hardcover
261 Pages; $23.95
Publication Date: 06-15-2006
Date Reviewed: 09-13-06
It's easy if you're on top of the world to think you know all the answers, when in fact, you don't even know where to begin asking questions. Writer Steven Kotler found himself in a thoroughly enviable position. He had a steady gig for a big-time slick magazine. They sent him where he asked to go, and he'd write about his adventures. He had the perfect girlfriend and the perfect house in Los Angeles. But by the time he found out he had Lyme disease, it was too late to ask what could go wrong. His life had already been unalterably changed for the worse. Readers who are looking for a straightforward book about either surfing or Jesus had best look elsewhere. This is not the book you are looking for. If however, you're looking for a slice of writing meant to provoke alternately laughter and wonder, then you've stopped thinking you have answers and started asking the right questions. Kotler doesn't have all the answers, but he's a got a book full of intriguing questions, with enough answers to keep readers thoroughly satisfied.
'West of Jesus' is a peculiar work. It's not an autobiography, though it roughly follows the period of the Kotler's life after he learns he has Lyme disease. It's not a medical investigation, though Kotler delves into medical details for a variety of reasons. It's not a book about religion, though it directly addresses religious thought. It's not a book about surfing, though well, it's sort of a book about surfing. It's not an anthropological exploration, though Kotler searches for the origins of a surfing myth. And it's not a book about neuroscience, except when Kotler is interviewing neuroscientists about the state of a surfer's brain while he's suspended in that silent place of momentary ecstasy that surfers call "the green room".
So while it is easy say what 'West of Jesus' is not, it's harder to say precisely what it is. It's most assuredly non-fiction, except the parts that are myths. It's certainly quite often laugh-out-loud funny, when it's not blowing your mind with revelations about how your mind works. More than anything, 'West of Jesus' is the answer to the question: "Where can I find a great, funny book about surfing, neuroscience, Lyme disease and the surf legend of the Conductor?" But that's not a question that many are going to be able to ask until after they’re done reading the book.
'West of Jesus' begins at least as a fairly straightforward "I got a weird, bad disease" biography. Lyme disease may not be as mysterious as it was ten or so years ago, but in Kotler's book, it's a lot funnier. Kotler writes with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor that is completely disarming. It's hard not to like the guy after the first couple of pages, and by then he has you. But the disease memoir slowly mutates as Kotler experiences no relief except when surfing. He has a great time and his mind, flattened by Lyme disease, begins to spark once again. He decides to go surfing in Mexico, which proves to be a bad idea, because he almost drowns.
Kotler's skill is to keep the reader with him on his very complicated journey from the life of a privileged but talented sports writer to that of a science journalist trying to understand the state of his own mind. In between, he explores the anthropological origins of the surf legend of the Conductor, a being who orchestrates the waves and weather with a baton made from human bones. And he surfs, often badly.
Kotler is easily able him to pull off this complicated mish-mash of the personal and the universal. Humor is a key element, and Kotler has finely-timed writing skills for physical humor. It's hard to pull off in print and yet he makes it look easy. The same mindset surely goes into his willingness to explore the origins of the mysterious surf legend he hears at two separate times in two very distant places. These portions of the narrative employ his talents as a travel writer. Sit down in your armchair and enjoy a mercifully brief tour of some of the top surf spots with a guy who might not be a lot better at surfing than you. At least that's how he makes you feel, which is again, an indicator of his talent.
Eventually Kotler, ever a skeptic, decides to uncover the scientific reasons behind states of faith and ecstasy as found in people as diverse as surfers and nuns. This is a very difficult transition to make, but by the time he plunges into the world of modern neuroscience, he's earned the reader's trust and patience. The latter is not required while the former is fully deserved. Confronted with the unreal, both in his own experiences and in the legends he's heard on his travels, Kotler interviews a series of scientists to learn the hard facts behind blind faith. By keeping the science on a personal level, he makes sure to connect with the reader on both a rational and emotional level.
'West of Jesus' manages to answer a question that's utterly ineffable. No matter what you think you know, 'West of Jesus' sidesteps it in a manner that is enchanting and compelling. Kotler writes with clarity and humor whether he's describing himself laying on the floor in a stupor or interviewing a scientist about the nature of human brain-stem activity. Most importantly, he manages to take us naturally on a journey from one to the other in manner that seems unforced, natural and consistently entertaining. 'West of Jesus' is not the book you think it is, even having read this review. But if you’re wondering what type of book 'West of Jesus' is, then you're starting, at least, to ask the right questions.