The Common Good
September-October 1995

Novel Treasures

by Liane Ellison Norman | September-October 1995

Daniel Peters writes a good read.

Daniel Peters is a first-rate storyteller whose work has not received the acclaim it deserves. His first novel, Border Crossings (Harper & Row, 1978), tells the story of a young man with a low draft lottery number, who, outraged and offended by the Vietnam War, flees to Canada.

Peters' next works are a superb trilogy of long and thrilling pre-Columbian stories, taking the reader into the heart of other civilizations and beliefs as only the best fiction can. The Luck of Huemac details an Aztec hero, family, and community. Though a little difficult to begin (because of unfamiliar and complicated names of Aztec deities), Huemac is a compelling tale of a culture weakened by bloodshed and finally destroyed by Spanish conquest. Tikal tells the story of a Mayan community-a tale of love, war, and agriculture. The Incas, somewhat less fresh and vital than the preceding works, is nonetheless a satisfying story of convincing people in exciting circumstances. All are what is known as "good reads."

And now Peters has written Rising From the Ruins, the story of a contemporary man, depressed and aimless, saved by joining an archaeological dig in Chiapas, Mexico, at the ancient Mayan site of Baktun. Harper Yates, a draft resister in the '60s, can find neither a place nor meaning for himself in the Reagan era: His novels are ignored; he and his wife inhabit a dreary rented house. "Why pretend he had a destination when his feet knew better?" he thinks, as he moves without direction in the suburban landscape.

The novel opens with a bizarre chase. Harp has taken to stealing the plastic lawn ornaments from well-tended suburban lawns. He is chased by police. While Harp gets away, he is "not safe, he decided upon reflection. Spared." But spared for what? His wife, a successful academic, is too caught up in her career to help him. And what would help?

A FRIEND FROM Harp's past invites him to join the dig at Baktun in Chiapas, which gives Harp direction and interest. Though he is not an archaeologist, Harp is increasingly interested in the evidence of a possible Mayan revitalization movement. While Harper is the joker among the modern archaeologists, he finds a sense of reverence as he tries to imagine the ancient Mayans as people, like himself, disgusted with political reactionaries and trying to revitalize their culture. Harp must deal not only with the long-vanished Mayans, who have left only clues to feed the imagination, but also with the colorful and contrary assortment of archaeologists who make up an intense, argumentative, and focused community, and who react to their findings, to one another, and to Harp.

The story takes on another layer of meaning when a stealthy group of Mayan Indians, hunted by Guatemalan soldiers, make their appearance near the ancient Mayan site. The archaeologists and Harp must consider what response to these shadowy and persecuted people makes sense in the mysterious light of what is known and not known of their forebears-and of their own time as well.

From this fascinating and humorous mix of personalities and events, Harp is able to recover his sense of how his past feeds his present, as well as his marriage and his confidence. Of the Mayan ballplayers, who have particularly fascinated him, he tells his wife:

"They were playing for the gods, after all, and it's usually assumed the gods are keeping score."

"I think you'd like to believe that yourself," Caroline suggested....

"It beats feeling inconsequential," Harp admitted. "I'm just afraid that all we ever get are brief glimpses. Never enough to know for sure."

"That means you have to keep paying attention....Maybe that's the way it works."

"Maybe it is," Harp said with a rueful shrug...."So let's get on with it."

I was not two pages into this book before I was hooked. I read late into the night and took time away from my work the next day to finish it. Peters has mapped the moral and spiritual journey of our time. This book, like the Baktun dig, is a treasure.

LIANE ELLISON NORMAN is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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