Other Voices Bookshelf

by Stacy Bierlein

Appears in Other Voices #30

Review of Collecting Sins by Steven Sobel

We first encounter Ben, the young narrator of Steven Sobel's vibrant first novel, trudging through sewer pipes below the San Femando valley in the late 60's. He accompanies his friend Graham, who navigates the sewer in search of sin. Graham's family has taken up Catholicism, and he needs material for Confession.

Above ground, Collecting Sins runs with remarkable pace. Ben continues exploring. Sobel sends him through Southern California--from the valley to Topanga Canyon and Santa Monica Beach, then up Pacific Coast Highway. The story breathes through a time when, writer Lauren Alwan says, "Southern California was adolescent itself, naive and on the verge of realizing its future."

This strong sense of place, and Sobel's daring, allow Collecting Sins to succeed where other so-called coming-of-age novels fail. The severity of the California landscape reveals what Ben's limited viewpoint cannot.

Sobel's Californians seem to live on borrowed time, with threats of war and nuclear arms in the distance. They are the earthquake culture, riding their shaking world, then stopping to pull themselves together. Sobel creates a heaven--the top of a 300 foot cliff that stretches for miles in both directions--and a hell--the place in the sewer where the pipes get small and there are no openings, no lights--that somehow resemble each other.

Ben's friend Jackson tells him "to live every minute, to love, to experience everything. You don't want a single p-minute in your life." P-minutes are moments of emptiness, "wasted minutes, pussy minutes." Jackson's stream of advise encourages a stronger self-awareness in Ben. It also enables him to retreat from difficult situations. After a serious talk with Connie, his girlfriend, he realizes "everything around me was the same and I was the same...except that I was a little shook up."

When Jackson, a hippie-turned-soldier, dies in Vietnam, Ben realizes how easily his generation could disappear. At Jackson's funeral, people have nothing real to say. Ben hears them describe "a Jackson they wanted to invent and remember because he was dead." Ben anticipates something he cannot define. He's startled when the men he hitches rides from know precisely where he's going.

He lets his hair grow and searches for something to believe in. He tells women in the canyon that he is a Student of the Human Condition, and feels aware that this is more a pick-up tine than philosophy. He recalls Jackson's warning not to hook into the wrong beliefs. He should strive for "peace and love." But Franny--a feminist Ben wants to seduce--believes he is too late. She's losing faith. "The hippies are just history. It's over, and we may as well just face it."

Each character seems to refuse to become the tragic member of Sobel's cast. Connie travels between hospitals, receiving experimental treatments for cancer. As the story progresses, Connie becomes healthy and manipulative. She wants to sleep with Graham. Actually, she has been sleeping with Graham. She pushes Ben to consider a threesome, but Ben gives up on free love.

Ben remains faithful to his friendship with Graham by continuing to collect sins. Ben cuts class, buys cocaine, and secretly photographs a masturbating neighbor. Graham lists his sins in a journal, but for Ben it's not so simple. As Ben points out, "making love was probably a sin on Graham's list, but definitely not on mine." Ben develops a system of five lists:

  • Great things, like curing cancer.
  • Good things, like sex, which should be a great thing, except everyone does it.
  • Typical sins, like taking pictures of naked women.
  • Mortal sins, for sins too big to understand.
  • Black marks, for missed opportunities.

On Ben's lists, the same events show up as sins and good things. A sin can save someone from a black mark. Blackmarks, like sins, might last a lifetime. On these lists, Ben's watches his childhood confidence transform to adult vulnerability. He is a poet's "young man, not fully awake."

While the novel hinges on the friendship between Ben and Graham, its strongest, most developed scenes occur when Graham is absent. Ben learns to get high in Jackson's stoning room. On his own, he follows Franny to activist communities near Topanga Canyon and Santa Barbara, with vivid results. He attempts to befriend Vicki, a prostitute who had been knocked out and dropped into the sewer through a manhole. At a party, Ben doesn't socialize until Graham has vomited and passed out in the bathroom.

Ben's home life deserves more time on the page. In the second chapter, Ben Sr. comes home drunk, and Ben's mother serves his dinner, leaving the meat raw. "I didn't know all the things my mother did to Ben Sr. when he was drunk .... One time I heard banging coming from their bedroom and I ran back there and Ben Sr. was passed out on the bed. My mother was knocking his head against the headboard. When I walked in she looked over at me and smashed Sr.'s head once more, extra hard." She said, "You'd better not mention this, or we'll all pay." We see little of Ben's family after this scene, and feel less surprised than Ben when his mother calls his father "a poet at heart" and says, "You'll understand someday."

So we journey with Ben, to the verge of someday. Sobel leads us through thick fogs and over cliffs with bold, intelligent writing. He challenges traditional definitions of sin and allows his characters to learn more but understand less. He reconfigures their wisdom. He takes them deep in the fray.

One scene in the novel stands alone. It beats softer than the rest of story; lovely, telling, and misplaced. A woman studying to be a lawyer ties her arm to a bedpost while she reads. If she falls asleep, the pain of the rope wakes her. Ben thinks of her as he pushes through brush, noting that one can't expect a person's path to stand up to even five minutes of wind and rain. His mind's eye pictures the woman reading, and this leaves him wondering, and feeling tired. And hungry.