Jupiter and Gilgamesh is a story about life decisions – good, bad, and inexplicable – and how those decisions add up ultimately to – a life well lived…
I have an empathetic affinity for the genesis of Scott Archer Jones’s latest novel, Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jones states that the genesis of his book came partly from a high school English teacher who made him read The Epic of Gilgamesh – and that the character of Gilgamesh was so intriguing (probably compelling is a better word) that he’s read the poem multiple times since that first encounter.
In the vernacular of our time, I feel you, Scott. My first book came partly from my experience of a couple of related works first read at the behest of teachers: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The power of literature draws us on, it seems, like the song of the sirens until some of us begin to “sing in our chains,” as the poet said.
That singing in one’s chains thing is a key theme in Jupiter and Gilgamesh. The main character is one Matthew (Matt) Devon, a gifted advertising man who owns a very successful ad agency in Amarillo, Texas. When we meet Matt, however, (I’ll ignore the novel’s prelude for now) he is living – hiding out, really – in an old grain elevator that he is having remodeled in a small farming town a short distance from Amarillo), trying to run his business via phone conferences, and has taken to calling himself Jupiter. His rationale for the first two acts is that he’s developed a trying case of anthropophobia (perhaps more well known as social anxiety disorder). His rationale for the last is partly that he’s using the alias as a nom de guerre with his “counselor,” a New Age “life coach” named Marjorie who offers Matt tea and sympathy both literally and figuratively. He’s a man in retreat from business, from people, from life.
And then Gilgamesh shows up. He teaches Jupiter/Matt a new tune.
Jones’s introduction of Gilgamesh is slightly fumbling, although within the scope of the novel it makes perfect sense. One of the projects Matt Devon, alias Jupiter, has set for himself is to write a book about Gilgamesh. As he’s sitting in front of his laptop trying to get started on the book (which, like much Jupiter/Matt is doing early in the novel, is a way of occupying his mind so that he doesn’t have to deal with his problems), his frustration leads him to begin writing (talking?) directly to the ancient hero king:
You were not born a king’s son. You were not even born in Uruk. You were not a pretty child at all. If it is true your mother was a goddess, then she did not start you off with her heavenly looks. They named you Gilgamesh, although we had that wrong for some time…. It was a very long time ago, twenty seven hundred years or so before Christ….
Jupiter/Matt goes on in this vein for awhile, then pauses to get himself a drink. Returning to his computer, he finds his first message from Gilgamesh: “What is my mother like?”
And from this point the novel begins to take off. Matt Devon, aka Jupiter, despite his desire to lead the hermetic life in “the wilderness” away from the complexities of Amarillo and his life there, is drawn out and into a series of adventures (one might think here of the hero’s journey and not be far off) that both define his similarity to – and difference from – the great warrior king – and epic hero -Gilgamesh.
Despite his social anxiety Jupiter/Matt acquires friends: first, his contractor, then, through Bobbie, the runaway he befriends, his contractor’s wife and the runaway’s aunt; a lover, his contractor’s daughter, a “nubile blonde” less than half his age; and enemies, such as the mayor and town council of Aniline, that small farm town outside Amarillo where Jupiter/Matt’s conversion of the old grain elevator into a home has aroused the indignation – and ignited a zoning war – with that power elite and his disloyal second-in-command at his agency, Jerry, who both betrays him and steals from him. His interactions with these people, forced on him by some, entered into voluntarily (if at times Prozac managed) with others, forms the bulk of the novel’s action.
But it is in his relationship with two central characters, both young, both women, that Jupiter/Matt is most like his counterpart from Sumeria. Kate, daughter of his contractor, with whom he develops a romantic relationship, tests – and punishes, after a fashion – him much as Ishtar tests and punishes Gilgamesh. The young runaway Roberta, known as Bobbie, that Jupiter/Matt rescues only to lose to forces beyond his control serves multiple functions. She is the child Jupiter/Matt never had and the neighbor’s child he accidentally killed (the event that haunts Matt and drives him to become Jupiter). She is also his Enkidu. Like the character in the Gilgamesh epic, she is a “wild creature” whom Jupiter “tames,” not with sex as in the Sumerian epic but with food, shelter, and kindness. Like Enkidu, however, she is chosen as a sacrifice to the gods: the abused daughter of a meth addict mother, she dies of multiple forms of hepatitis which her mother’s poor parenting have allowed her to contract.
Tested by his experiences with Kate and Bobbie, as well as by his struggles with both the Aniline town council and his disloyal employee Jerry, Jupiter/Matt is chastened – but ultimately unbowed. He takes responsibility for his business (rebuilding it into an even stronger firm); he accepts that his relationship with Kate may/may not work out (and helps her pursue her career goals); he, with the aid of both his ad agency and – in a clear nod to deus ex machina – the National Trust for Historic Preservation – saves Aniline from the clutches of a wealthy farmer who is clearly a Tea Party type intent on making sure that the town dies in the name of “saving money”: he helps the mayor, his sworn enemy, but a man with a vision for growth for the community, get re-elected. And he gets the grain elevator – his tower retreat – declared a National Historic Site, a move that will both is a win for him and a win for the town since it will encourage tourism and development. Freed from his tower, Jupiter is free – and Matt Devon can return home, his hero’s journey complete. As the novel notes in its last line, “It was the most perfect thing.”
If all this sounds a little messy, it is at times. Jones has a number of narrative threads running through Jupiter and Gilgamesh and these don’t always weave together as smoothly as one imagines they could. But in the end, both Jones and Jupiter/Matt get it all sorted out – and so do we readers. A key to fully appreciating the novel, I think, is to remember that a Sumerian epic hero and warrior king and a 21st century traumatized neurotic advertising executive are not all that different, really. Both want to do good, even great things. And both want to be remembered for lives well lived.
Thanks to Jupiter and Gilgamesh: A Novel of Sumeria and Texas, they will be.