Self-published novels don’t yet carry the same indie-approved stamp of D.I.Y cool of self-released albums. It’s sad but true, and the reason is simple enough: While the technology exists to create professional-sounding CDs in the comfort of one’s own living room, there is not yet an affordable home editing program that can compete with Random House’s slick team of professional book doctors.
At first glance, the simplistic cover art and hard-to-read font on the font of Asheville author Michael Hopping‘s just-released Meet Me In Paradise (WastelandRunes, 2007) hint at more of the issues beleaguering self-published books. But, by the novel’s start, those fears prove unfounded.
Paradise, it turns out, is whip-smart, fast-paced, almost breathless in its energetic delivery and entertaining enough to keep the reader hanging on through complex plot turns and a full cast of characters. At the heart of the story, evangelical T.V. preacher Cal receives a message from God that he needs to prepare a place for the second coming. Cal’s idea for the locale? A chain of discount retail stores he co-owns with an unscrupulous businessman. But when Cal suggests turning the discount shops into Christian super-stores, his partner thinks the preacher has lost his mind.
There’s more. Behind all this, controlling the stores and the T.V. ministry, are competing teams of thugs. The under-handed action takes on 007 proportions with top-secret missions, computer hacking, information planting, and various assumed identities. And while this idea — big religion run like a drug cartel — isn’t exactly new ground, it’s Hopping’s handling of the material that renders the story so fresh. He expertly crafts characters that dance on the edge of cliche, without ever actually becoming cliche. There’s enough Jim and Tammy Fay Baker for the reader to get the reference without turning Paradise into a tired PTL satire.
Even better, Hopping doesn’t altogether dismiss the religious aspect in his book. He manages to plumb the well-thumbed subject matter (crooked preachers, business conducted in strip-clubs, salvation in the form of payola) without revealing his side — and that goes a long way to making the book a guilty pleasure. Sure, there’s politics at play here, but the reader is allowed to enjoy the devilish array of action without the annoyance of a P.C.-motivated agenda.
This well-crafted and immaculately edited first novel ups the ante for future independent releases.
Michael Hopping reads from Meet me In Paradise at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 4 to 6 p.m.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter