Author:  Athol Dickson
Title:  The Cure
Publisher:  Bethany House

Riley Keep is not your average pastor.  Of course, he’s not exactly a pastor—at least not anymore.  He used to be, though.  He had a church, a congregation, a faculty teaching position and a family.  But that was before.  Before his mission trip to South America, where everything went so terribly wrong.  Now Riley’s just one of so many homeless alcoholics who, like so many “respectable” fathers, has abandoned his wife and daughter. 

After years on the streets, Riley comes home to the tiny village of Dublin, Maine, where business owners are struggling but the homeless just keep pouring in, straining everyone’s resources.  They’ve heard that there’s a cure for alcoholism in Dublin—and they’ve all come to get it. 

Riley stumbles on the cure after an auspicious visit to his former church.  It’s a sweet white powder, and once he tastes it, Riley loses all desire to drink.  But he must never drink again, the note warns, lest his addiction become worse than ever.  Riley knows he’s onto something big—a suspicion that’s confirmed when he’s attacked by a band of street people clamoring for his secret.  That’s when things really start to unravel.

Athol Dickson is the author of five novels, including River Rising, which won the 2006 Christy Award for suspense.  He’s known for his scenic word painting, and in this book, he spends lengthy passages describing the town, its inhabitants and its picturesque views.  He masterfully details lobstermen hauling in their afternoon catch, the grimy clothes of a homeless man and a snowy encounter with a buck in the forest.  It’s good writing, for the most part, and it sets an evocative scene.  Placed one after the other at the beginning of his tale, however, Dickson’s descriptions sometimes feel forced.  He uses the tired cliché of a character gazing into a mirror to “see” what he looks like, and shoves as many descriptions as he can into each character’s point of view, early in the novel.  This stalls the story, preventing the plot from taking off until midway through the novel. 

Of course, Dickson’s style is literary not commercial.  But delaying and trimming, some of his descriptions would have strengthened his prose considerably—especially when he falls into the trap of “telling” rather than “showing.”  It’s only occasional, but it’s a mistake that belies the author’s extensive experience.  They’re not fatal, and only the savviest of readers will notice.  In the hands of a strong editor, in fact, Dickson has the potential to become a truly great novelist.

His characters benefit from his ambling depictions.  They’re well-drawn, multidimensional and very, very real.  Hardly a man to admire, we relate to Riley and eventually begin to root for him.  This is the key factor in the novel’s success, even though at times, the story is hard to follow. 

Another strength is Dickson’s compassionate, and insightfully accurate, depictions of alcoholism and the homeless—especially the understanding that there, but for the grace of God, go we.  He writes as if he’s been there himself, and readers will find themselves giving a second look to anyone on the street, wondering about his or her life.

Like most Christian fiction, Dickson’s novel isn’t primarily plot- or character-driven.  It’s centered around a message of hope and forgiveness, and God’s unending offer to make all things new.  That’s a message that many will cherish, well after this enjoyable story is over.