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I’ll never forget the first time I read Michael Snyder’s work. It was seven years ago, on a website called InFuze, which featured short stories by upcoming Christian writers—many of whom have gone on to publishing deals with some major publishers. Amidst so many great stories from so many talented writers, it’s a testament to Snyder’s style and skill that all these years later, I can remember the opening lines of his breezy prose as his narrative character described the mouth of the jailer outside his cell as having teeth like white Tic-Tacs, with lots of space between each one.
The story was called “My Name is Russell Fink”, and it chronicled the title character’s struggles with a crazy on-again, off-again girlfriend with a flair for the theatrical and crooked front tooth that digs into her lip, an odd imperfection that makes her all the more beautiful. Within a few words of prose, Snyder wove a spell that captured me and forever influenced my perceptions of what great writing should be.
Imagine my immense joy when, in 2008, Michael Snyder’s first novel was released. Also titled My Name Is Russell Fink, I expected an expanded edition of the story I loved so well. Instead, Snyder surprised me with a much more developed take on Russell Fink’s character.
Instead of opening with Russell Fink in jail, Snyder opens the novel with Russell Fink as a listless man-child with a menial job he hates and isn’t very good at, the son of a self-proclaimed faith-healing preacher who wasn’t able to heal his own daughter. Russell still carries an irrational blame for his sister’s death from childhood, and as an adult surrounded by family, his only true companion is a semi-alcoholic basset hound that might possibly be clairvoyant—at least when drunk.
Unfortunately for Russell, the basset hound doesn’t survive far into the book, giving Russell the somber task of finding his beloved dog’s killer.
As Russell Fink seeks to avenge his four-legged friend, Snyder takes the time to weave a particularly spellbinding story of a man lost in a world post-modern angst. Russell Fink has no war to fight except the war against unfulfilled expectation, his journey takes him from moments of profound, gut-wrenching poignancy to gut-busting absurdity. Snyder effortlessly uses the dynamic of Fink’s dysfunctional family to make some subtle but pointed observations about religion and the state of American society.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Snyder never succumbs to the temptation to paint his world with a pointed brush. Snyder’s characters have flaws, for sure, but are nevertheless lovingly portrayed. For everything ugly about Snyder’s characters, there’s just as much to love. As such, Snyder weaves a tale that lives in that gray area between black and white, where often the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good, where the difference between hero and villain is simply a matter of where in the story you happen to find yourself.
As a writer, there are moments where my jaw dropped and I simply stared at the words on the page in utter astonishment that their simple arrangement worked so well, and the last page left me with a profound longing to start reading again from page one.
Is My Name Is Russell Fink a perfect book? Not quite, but where it fails is where it shines. Just like that crooked tooth of Russell’s first love, the times when the pacing fails or storylines wrap up just a little to cleanly only serve to reinforce what a powerful work of fiction My Name Is Russell Fink truly is.