The thing I most admire about Susan Howatch (other than the fact that she tells a great story every time she writes a novel) is her ability to expose her readers to markedly Christian concepts without preaching.
In The Heartbreaker
, the protagonist is a breathtakingly handsome twenty-nine-year-old male prostitute. Gavin Blake is a heterosexual man who provides sex for upscale men in the heart of London, quite against his nature. How he ended up in such a degrading position is at the heart of this novel, but as it begins, Gavin is in extreme denial. He calls himself a "leisure worker" and believes he is not only at the top of his game, but well on his way to retiring from his chosen profession and living a life of ease with his "manager" (read: pimp) a woman named Elizabeth.
Through several God-engineered "coincidences," Gavin ends up in situations with Christian lay people as well as clergy and is slowly brought into an awareness that his circumstances are not only dismal and disturbing but potentially dangerous thanks to an odious individual who gives new meaning to the word evil. At a funeral for one of his clients (the only one who'd ever treated him like a human being) he studies a stained-glass window that depicts the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:4-7. Gavin calls the man he sees in that picture, who tenderly holds a bedraggled sheep in his arms, The Bloke
. This image and the idea of being rescued returns on several occasions as the novel continues, but each time it's brief and used to show how Gavin's thinking has shifted. Eventually, as his circumstances worsen and his awareness grows, Gavin begins to realize what's happened to him:
Sitting on a platform bench I sip from my Styrofoam cup and decide there's a certain ruthless inevitability about my disintegrating life, as if someone's methodically smashing it up with a hammer. I feel I'm being steered through a series of interlocking situations which are all leading to one Gotterdammerung-type conclusion-but no, "steered" isn't the word that describes what's happening to me, it's too gentle. I feel as if I've been lassoed and now I'm being dragged along the ground in a cloud of dust-but no, that's not right either. It conveys the idea of being captured but not the idea of being rescued. Someone's lassoed me, but with a lifebelt attached to a rope-yes, that's it. I was drowning in the sea but now the lifebelt's plopped over my head, the rope's snapped tight and a lifeguard on the distant beach is tugging me through the shark-infested waters to safety.
The rescuer's got to be The Bloke. He's not a shepherd any more. Shepherds are passé. He's a lifeguard like in Baywatch. Cool. Okay, haul away, mate, and give my love to Mary Magdalene, patron saint of prostitutes, who of course is standing by looking just like Pamela Anderson. Phwoar! Ultra-cool.
Howatch is able to present the Gospel to an audience of nonbelievers in a unique-yet-powerful way, one that almost anyone is able to understand, one that is completely non-threatening. At this point in the story, the reader is rooting for Gavin, cheering him on, and hoping he survives the next forty-eight hours. If The Bloke
can help, they are all for it. And because this idea of Jesus as the rescuer has been presented in a thoroughly non-religious manner (i.e., without religiosity) but rather as part of a riveting story in which Gavin develops a relationship with The Bloke, just as with any other character, it works for secular readers. They don't feel as if someone has preached to them and presented the Five Spiritual Laws or the Four Steps to Salvation. That's the beauty of her approach: it plants the seed, a seed that others might nurture, a seed only the Lord can bring to fruition.Sidebar
: In case you're wondering: Susan Howatch was the inspiration behind my decision to write for the general market. Discovering her writing and this book in particular capped a number of other "coincidences" in my life including my inclusion in an international critique group, Dave Long's Faith in Fiction blog, Mount Hermon in 2004, Ted Dekker's speech there about light vs. darkness, Jeff Dunn's lecture on post-modernism, my introduction to the emergent church, and many more of my own God-engineered moments. It's been a wild ride!