Strange Devotion By Jacob Koestler and Michael McDermit, 124 pgs.

May 24, 2022

It’s rare for me to find a work of art that satisfies on as many levels as this does. A multimedia work combining arresting photographs, a heartbreaking novella, and a pamphlet purportedly reprinted from an obscure Creationist geologist (more on that later), this book manages the tricky feat of balancing all of those balls in the air simultaneously while not coming across as pretentious and also genuinely creating a feeling of inexorable loss that builds and builds the further you venture. The stars of the show are Koestler’s photographs of Lapine, Pa., the site of a catastrophic flood of the Allegheny Valley in 1957. Weaving together modern photos of an area left behind in a post-NAFTA America, wreckage still visible from the flood, and seemingly timeless geologic shots, Koestler presents a natural beauty wracked with ruin. Almost as if this was an inevitability.

McDermit’s contribution is a novella serialized throughout the photographs dealing with a family broken by war and tragedy in the lead up to the flood. Often in books whose main focus is photography or paintings the accompanying text is scaled somewhere between overly dry and just informative. Not so here. McDermit is a very talented author whose prose recalls Annie Proulx or Ron Rash in its direct, simple, but deeply affecting style. It’s been two weeks since I finished reading it for the second time, and I’m still having trouble shaking off these characters.

Lastly, but by no means least interestingly, is the addition of the pamphlet “The New Diluvialism,” a work of Christian Evangelicalism referenced throughout the text as being central to the belief system of the apocalyptic water-obsessed cult slowly digging its claws into the town of Lapine. I’m not sure if this is also fiction (it’s presented as real), or possibly a historical tract the idea for this work sprang from, but it’s an excellent addition. Starting as a propagandistic vehicle for a version of Young Earth Creationism fueled by geological readings of the valleys surrounding the Allegheny, it gradually descends into a polemic by a grief-stricken man so haunted by the apparent suicide of his daughter that he makes himself believe that through self-flagellation, prayer, and sheer will he’ll be able to see her again, if only to convince himself that what he knows happened possibly didn’t. Taken with the rest of the work it does a masterful job building on the theme of devotion that may mystify us—but seems impossible to ignore—in fact, it may give us our ultimate purpose: our land, our family, our faith, ourselves. –Justin Bookworm (Blurry Pictures, blurry-pictures.com)

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