“Messenger from Mystery,” by Deno Trakas

Deno Trakas

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

Messenger from Mystery is Dr. Deno Trakas’s first novel, but he’s not unknown to upstate South Carolina readers. He holds the Laura and Winston Hoy Chair in English at Wofford and has published both fiction and poetry in journals and anthologies.

The novel harks back to the latter years of the Carter Administration, providing a time capsule of the diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States occurring over 444 days between November 4, 1979 and January 20, 1981. Television news gave daily updates, and Walter Cronkite ended his news reports by noting how many days the hostages had been held captive.

The Iranian hostage crisis was, of course, a clash of cultures, which find a parallel in the smaller world of Jason Nichols, the protagonist in Messenger from Mystery. Jason is an English graduate student at the University of South Carolina and a third generation Greek. It’s more likely than not that his claim to having been named after the character in Greek myth—as opposed, say, to Sinbad or Gulliver—is a self-made myth.  But like Jason of the Argonauts, Jason Nichols is in pursuit of a prize: his graduate degree, a kind of fleecy parchment. As the novel progresses, Jason undertakes a perilous quest.

“Jay” believes himself well-informed as to both local and global politics, but soon  comes to understand his knowledge is naive if not superficial. He sees this moment of revolution as a learning opportunity for students in the conversational English classes he teaches. Eventually sanctions prevented Iranian students from enrolling at United States colleges, but prior to the revolution, colleges and universities were home to good numbers of Iranians. Soon Jay finds himself infatuated with one of these students, Azadeh “Azi” Ghotbbzadeh. Unbeknownst to Jay, she is a cousin of Iran’s foreign minister, who wishes to work with the United States to resolve the crisis. As the novel develops, international intrigue mixes with the forbidden love story of Jay and Azi.

As the crisis unfolds, Jay’s college friend, now one of President Carter’s aids, enlists Jay’s help. Hamilton Jordan has learned that Jay has a close relationship with a woman who has access to the inner circles of the Ayatollah.

The novel thus becomes a spy thriller as well as a coming-of-age story. Jay is still young, lacks impulse control, and is on the cusp of emerging from the usual graduate student self-absorption. Still, he is likeable and empathetic. Although a reader may have to suspend some belief, the story does probe how goodness—and, yes, love—can transcend the discord between United States and Middle East relations—discord still with us today.

In the initial parts of the novel, the tone is melancholy. Jay is merely an ordinary guy aimlessly plodding along, and the narrative is also a bit slow and meandering. As the pace picks up, Jay is enlisted by Jordan and the CIA. Here’s where suspension of belief is necessary. Jay becomes part of an operation that goes wrong. With the help of friends, however, he mounts a rescue operation of his own and the novel shifts from the placid avenues of the University of South Carolina to the war-torn streets of Iran.

Suspension of belief in literature requires a reader to sacrifice ordinary logic for the sake of enjoyment and entertainment; the notion does not suggest irrationalities or lack of truth value but is rather a fictional process whereby we know we are transported into a fiction.  Are there parts of this novel that are not consistent with what we know to be reality?  Surely, but readers of thrillers are usually willing to leave reality behind for a time to enjoy an adventurous tale.

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