The wonderfully realized Saint Jack and Toad: Third Angel of the Apocalypse doesn’t fit easily into any standard genre of fiction.
Set in modern-day New York City, it reads like a suspense tale but contains touches of fantasy, and is as realistically gritty at times as the backstreets and alleyways of New York’s rougher neighborhoods. An “adventure-literary novel, realism with fantasy overtones” would, I suppose, come closest to describing it, yet I’m not sure that does it fully either.
is a stirring tale, but it is also storytelling with intelligence and social consciousness (increasingly rare) that allows the book to transcend the limits of a “genre” novel. It is then, for lack of its fitting into any other category, a “literary” novel, but one that reads like a page-turner. It is as if a writer of thrillers was bitten by a mosquito carrying a Sartre or a Nietzsche virus
- a touch of the virus, anyway.
Jack Cassidy (the “Saint Jack” of the title) is a New York City firefighter. The book opens with a vivid scene in which Jack is attempting to rescue a young child from a raging fire:
"…And he’d better find her fast! Heat! He could feel the beast nearby, its vast appetite for destruction coming closer. The fire scared him but it was the heavy smoke that made him fear for the child’s life at the moment. Nine times out of ten it was the fire’s breath, and not the fire, that killed. Is the girl still alive? Maybe not. Not in this. But the possibility, the smallest hope, and pure doggedness urged him forward….Smoke concealed everything. The fire began to perform for him, presenting him with spirals of flame curling along the ceiling. Chilling grins of flame which his sight could discern despite the billowing fog…”
Jack does manage to save the young girl and then, in perverse irony, that same night, driving home, he is shocked to discover that his own house is ablaze, and that within that blaze are the cremated bodies of his own wife and child:
“As he approached the fire, a few of the firefighters saw him and recognized him. The weighed-down, stricken expression that gathered immediately in their eyes, on their faces, communicated the bad news before any words were spoken. Jack shook his head, not wanting to accept those expressions of sorrow and pity. Not wanting to believe the terrible message they sent to him.
…It was then that something in his mind fractured and it was then that, still screaming, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell senseless into the outstretched arms of a firefighter.
Jack Cassidy lived, but in a manner of speaking, from that moment, he ceased to be.”
Saint Jack and Toad is a love story as well, for Jack never fully
recovers from the loss of his wife and daughter. His love is too great. A short
while after their deaths, he walks to their graves with the intent of killing himself. He is stopped from putting a bullet in his head only by the sudden appearance of a holy vision, a Lady, who tells him he must live in order to save humankind from a growing evil that would summon the “Third Angel of the Apocalypse” and destroy the world.
Jack believes in the vision and accepts the Herculean task.
But, while there are fantastic elements in the book, elements generated by either God’s true intervention or by Jack’s increasing insanity (the author ultimately wants the reader to decide which it is), this novel is firmly rooted in reality. Most of the action takes place on the streets of New York City’s coarse Lower East Side where Jack, after seeing the vision, sets up a “church” (with one member, Jack) in a brownstone building on a partially razed street. The novel is filled with characters from those hostile streets, prostitutes, pimps, youth gangs, professional gangsters and runaway teens. This is a novel as gritty and New York City streetwise as it is philosophical and thought-provoking.
The “Toad” of the title is a runaway teenaged boy who lives by his wits and by street-performing his magic tricks for donations on the sidewalks of New York City. He and another recent teenaged runaway, Susan, are thrown inadvertently into the path of the very evil that Jack is seeking to find and destroy. Susan, who
ran away from the threat of molestation by her stepfather, now has her life threatened by circumstance, and Toad and Saint Jack must risk their own lives to try to save her.
Toad, who gets close to no one for purposes of survival breaks his own rule
of "trust no one"with Susan. Again the power of love rears its head, for by the middle of the book Toad is in love with Susan and would do anything to save her. A little side-note: Toad’s revelation to Susan as to the secret of the con-game of “Three Card Monte” alone is worth the price of the book. Many New Yorkers have seen this game played at any given time on any given street in the city, and naïve tourists still fall for it. Carraher here explains the con. As I said, a “street-wise” book.
This is a novel that provides food for thought as well as fast-paced action, a novel of faith and redemption, of good versus evil, an adventure-filled tale that stretches out to explore the nature of things, of greed and even of God. A book that questions the sanity
-- or lack of it -- of the direction of current-day science. Will our “tinkering” with DNA (the “Waters of Life” as mentioned in the Bible, along with the “Third Angel of the Apocalypse”) be the ultimate destruction of Life as we know it?
There is much magic in this book, not the least of which is Carraher’s superior prose. This is what books should be, and too often are not. I doubt you will find a better
read, nor a more convincing tale of the underbelly of New York City life and the potential horrors of the near future than can be had in Saint Jack and Toad. Read it twice (as I have). Read it the first time for the pure fun of reading a true page-turner. Then read it a second time to enjoy the superb prose and contemplate the ideas tucked inside its fast-paced plot. Saint Jack is that rare book where a second read is worthwhile. Think about what the book says about God and humanity, about what it says some of us are capable of, in terms of both good and evil, and read about what it suggests our collective future might ultimately be.