Review: Elmer Gantry

Sinclair Lewis has a real knack for creating characters without redeeming qualities that readers cannot look away from.  Elmer Gantry is one of these, cut from the same cloth as George Babbit, who has a brief cameo.  Babbit is a realistic and depressing Middle American businessman, and Elmer Gantry is a realistic and depressing Middle American Evangelist.  Gantry is, if anything, less introspective than Babbit, but Lewis compensates by making Elmer Gantry‘s plot more exciting.

At their core, the two books – and Main Street for that matter – are very similar.  They’re looks at singularly American people (and places) with a clear eye.  Lewis isn’t a schoolmarm about this, though.  While he clearly doesn’t approve of what his characters get up to, he’s got a sense of humor about it.  And that sense of humor expresses itself in word play, the occasional joke, and some wicked backhanded irony.  As deadpan ironist, Lewis has few peers.

Lewis’s artistry and ironic distance make Gantry palatable, even entertaining, but his critique of American evangelism is the central theme.  The unique amalgam of marketing, showmanship, and politics that makes up Gantry’s world will be familiar to anyone watching evangelists in the 21st century.  Though Gantry is set almost a century ago, the fundamental tenets of American Evangelism remain largely unchanged. Lewis vividly depicts the cynicism and outright hypocrisy that seem to be prerequisites for success in this world.

A satirical expose of unscrupulous clergy is interesting, but Gantry is stronger than that.  Despite all his larger-than-life transgressions, Gantry remains recognizably human.  In fact, I easily identified with Gantry’s ambivalence that leads him to compromise after compromise until he has become something pretty awful.  It is easy to see the lure of that road, even as I hope I’m not on it.  And it is easy to see that Gantry can’t tell how far down the road to perdition he’s gone. He’s not self-aware enough to see where the sum of his decisions have taken him.  I think he’s got plenty of company.

While Lewis is a scathing critic of the hypocrites who seem to be the most successful, he does not ignore the good done by many of the cloth.  In fact, even the worst clergy depicted have  moments of decency and benevolence.  He also draws out the range of belief in and out of the clergy itself.  There is a lot to think about here.

Strongly recommended.

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