The Gulf by Belle Boggs
Belle Boggs’ first novel The Gulf takes a few interesting toys out of the toy chest, lines them all up, then abruptly sweeps them into the trash. The novel succeeds when humorously skewering the industry of religious for-profit education programs, but settles for cheap applause when tackling the ever-present search for personal meaning and ethical life choices. The novel wants us to know that in our polarized era, the gulf between us all may not be as big as we thought—sure, Boggs, we get it.
Fortysomething Marianne, a struggling poet who has missed certain relationship and career boats, enters an entrepreneurial endeavor with her now-platonic ex-fiance Eric. They renovate an inherited ranch along Florida’s Gulf Coast and open a live-in Christian creative writing academy for adults. All while hiding the fact they are non-believers who viscerally disdain the willful righteousness of the dogmatic-minded. Getting the school on its feet is a rocky process, as are the initial few classes, but a driven community of benevolent writers nonetheless emerges despite the founders’ initially cynical motives. Under increasing budgetary strain, they resort to the financial backing of a Christian corporation in the business of acquiring and revamping for-profit schools. But the conglomerate’s concurrent funding of far-right Super PACs and hardcore evangelical politicians ensnares the school in a tangle of controversy that threatens to eclipse and alienate the thriving community that has developed within.
The Gulf’s biggest strength is its conceptual focus on religious for-profit entrepreneurship. Founding a Christian writing school seems sensible enough, as does launching a dating app for believers. Both could deliver services consistent with religious practices in a substantive way. But how would one go about executing a Christian graphic design school? Or, as Marianne most hilariously calls out, a Christian medical billing school? At what point does the religious label become an empty selling point, included only to seduce students into forking over hefty tuition in service of a higher noble cause? Satire like this reminds us to resist the allure of tribal labels invoked only in pursuit of the dollar, and to instead invest in communities that meaningfully execute their stated missions. A Christian medical billing school—that is just so perfectly hilarious.
But in her delivery of this observation, Boggs aims only for the safe prose and standard structure intended to appeal to mass audiences by its refusal to challenge readers. By opening a section with “Eric sat grimly in his office,” one wonders whether Boggs deserves her current MFA teaching position. Describing the act of sitting in an office with the lazy adverb “grimly” is a 101 creative writing no-no. Could she not instead demonstrate why Eric is feeling grim, or assign him dialogue that one intuitively understands to be coming from a bleak mindset, instead of outright opening the paragraph with the catch-all label “grimly?”
Hyphenating the word “in-box” is another baffling choice because the novel is set in 2012, not 1991. On that point, Boggs’ choice to pepper the narrative with references to the crowded 2012 republican primary election are token distractions. More often than not these nods are franken-stitched onto unrelated plot points: “She’d learned Excel while watching the first Republican primary debates, and had kept her cool when the libertarian doctor said it was okay to let the uninsured die, just kept adding columns and formulas.” An MFA creative writing teacher such as herself should be able to devise a more adroit method of tying together the tangible plot points of running the school with the larger thematic arc of learning to coexist with the dogmatic-minded.
In regard to the latter, Boggs doesn’t hesitate to give this religious demographic a good-natured satirical skewering. After all, Marianne assembles the school in part to gather a bunch of wingnut believers she can mine for poetry ideas. She marvels at the misguided way they desperately look for higher order in the endless noise of randomness, and she viscerally despises the holier-than-thou moral crusades of evangelical senator Tad Tucker. Yet an inevitable downpour of cheap applause gradually appears on the horizon and barrels toward the story’s core. Marianne frequently observes how blatantly happy the believing community appears: belonging to a group, working together to ascertain God’s will, and sharing their daily exultance on social media. Boggs further absolves the crew by introducing the extremist right-wing fundamentalist into the equation, inserted to make the Ranch’s community of writers appear rational only by proximal comparison. Tad Tucker’s massive looming shadow, as well as an Act 3 deus-ex-hurricane included to give the group an excuse to band together, make for an unsatisfying kumbaya campfire.
It’s a shame these two-dimensional antagonists drift like massive icebergs into the story, subsequently displacing the more interesting, grounded narratives of the school’s writing students. Much like Game of Thrones’ White Walker zombies, the perfect storm of the conglomerate/evangelical senator/hurricane asks us to grant unearned absolution to its principal characters. And when the storm settles, Boggs doesn’t hold her characters responsible for their suspension of critical thinking. As the Christian writers look for the face of Jesus in their morning toast, Boggs romanticizes them by way of juxtaposition with militant fundamentalists, never acknowledging that each poisonous repercussion stems from the same doctrinal blueprint. The Gulf coerces all its characters into singing a non-denominational hymnal, then asks the reader, what’s the harm in this?