“Male and female at once, the poetry of one and the poetry of the other, both burning—like a parrotfish, another miracle of nature, changing gender apace, beside its glorious, ever-changing hue.”
The Atheist and the Parrotfish is one of the most unusual and original stories I’ve encountered in some time.
The two plotlines follow two protagonists whose stories aren’t exactly parallel, although they overlap considerably as two men’s lives intertwine in important ways. Dr. Cullen Brodie, a California nephrologist, transplants a heart and kidney into Ennis Willoughby, a cross-dresser whose life is saved by the surgery. Willoughby felt he had two identities before the surgery—his male self and Elaine, the female side of him he loves to display in women’s clothes. But after the transplant, Willoughby is convinced the soul of the donor, a female named Carla MacGregor, has transmigrated into him and is in conflict with Elaine. If Elaine will not accept Carla, Ennis fears the transplanted organs will fail. On the other hand, he’d love to purge the soul of Carla from him as she has unfinished business with her family, especially her disabled son. After tracking down his donor’s husband and children, Ennis finds things are more complicated than he could have imagined.
Meanwhile, Brodie, the atheist of the book’s title, is concerned about his patient’s fears and begins a romantic relationship with Ennis’s psychologist, Becky Winthrop, who also thinks Ennis has subconsciously confused his emerging transgender personality with the imagined characteristics of his female donor. At the same time, Brodie’s own consciousness is troubled with memories of a tragic encounter that lead, years before, to the death of a four year old boy. Cullen is drawn to the South Pacific by a self-mutilating old lover, Angela Masters, for a reckoning of their past. On the island paradise of Rarotonga, he confronts the heartrending truth about the tragedy that destroyed their college romance. As the story progresses, it’s clear his primary odyssey is to face his atheism as his patient’s condition requires some rethinking of the possibility of a soul.
The author, Dr. Richard Barager, is a nephrologist and kidney specialist who integrated his medical knowledge and experience into a soap opera full of vivid descriptions. Every character, main and supporting, is fully sketched, many as graphically and erotically described as any characters in fiction. The main voices reveal deep and believable motivations. I must say, the conclusion comes off a bit rushed with a very surprising final chapter. Gratefully, Barager doesn’t provide all the answers but instead allows for multiple interpretations, both scientific and metaphysical. In fact, the author gives us a quiz after the text so we can critique our own responses to the book.
The Atheist and the Parrotfish is Richard Barager’s second novel, following his award-winning Altamount Augie published by Interloper Press in 2011. In 2018, Evolved Publishing plans to release his Red Clay, Yellow Grass: A Novel of the 1960s. If his other titles provide the memorable characters and very unique situations of The Atheist and the Parrotfish, then Richard Barager merits both awards and a wide readership willing to take on books atypical of most genre fiction.
First posted at BookPleasures.com on June 15, 2017: