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By Mark T. Sullivan

Avon Books, Paperback (reprint), 347 pages (July, 1998) $6.99

Reviewed by Bill Wemple (8/98)

In THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY, author Mark Sullivan fuses an allegory of Fall and Redemption with a cut-em-up thriller, complete with a breathless chase over Canada's equivalent of a moor. To build this allegorical substructure, he taps the tribal folklore of the Micmac of eastern Canada, an Algonquian tribe similar to the Cree, and tosses in classical allusions to the Styx and to Diana, goddess of the hunt. The result is a descent on a thriller into a contemporary hell.

To enjoy the novel, you have to ingest a large serving of Native American mysticism, or at least tolerate it. Diana Jackman, the novel's heroine, learned hunting in her childhood from her Micmac father and grandfather, and it became a rich ritual in her life. "Dreams and hunting," her grandfather said, "are windows into other worlds." Central to hunting, she learned, was an understanding of "the Power," the life force that drives and supersedes us all. Connecting with the Power joins the "...spirit between what is seen and unseen" and heightens perceptions and consciousness. The connected hunter reaches supersensitive heights, practically becoming one with the environment and prey. She learned too that hunting whitetail will teach us " to conduct ourselves correctly in the presence of Power." These are the novel's thematic threads.

As an adult, Diana leaves this mysticism behind her and becomes a software engineer. She marries into a Boston Back Bay family and has two children before her father dies and the mysticism resurfaces. Her ensuing returns to the woods to follow deer precipitate the breakup of her marriage, and she's denied custody of her children. Caught in her own personal hell, she books a spot on a Canadian hunting trip to bring stability into her life.

In Sullivan's Canada, two rivers, the Dream and the Sticks, converge at a point between Alberta and British Columbia. Between them lies the principal site of the novel, the vast grounds of the Metcalfe estate, a sort of king's forest of trophy deer. Ten men and Diana have paid thousands for a ten day hunt here for record book buck.

It becomes a hellish nether world for them. On the first day of the hunt, the hunters disperse over the estate after establishing rendezvous sites. Returning to her site late in the day, Diana finds her young guide strung up in a tree, dressed out like a deer. He is the first of several. Like him, each eviscerated victim will have a feather jammed in his mouth.

The hunters turned prey find they are isolated. The killer has destroyed all means of contacting help, so they must either barricade themselves in the lodge or track and destroy the killer. They vote to track him, and the resolution of the novel pivots on Diana's superior tracking skills. She crosses the Sticks, finds the killer, and has a naked confrontation with pure madness. It's first rate thriller stuff and the allegorical core of the novel.

Most of the novel's characters are stereotypical -- macho thick-necked hunters, a spoiled tycoon, a wise, fatherly elder, and an effete environmental journalist. Diana Jackman, though, is complex and convincing. Her characterization, coupled with the book's sub-plot -- the misery ensuing from her misunderstanding her parents' intense mutual love -- colors the events so they become believably human and real instead of mad movie violence. By the novel's end, the events and her reflections have become her own purification ceremony, a separate one from the one the insane killer's pursuing.

Author Mark Sullivan, an investigative journalist, writes a tight, fast paced novel. The four pages of accompanying lush critical praise for the plot and aesthetics of THE PURIFICATION CEREMONY are justified. The novel's a keeper, one you might want to read twice.

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