(Featured Review) The Man He Never Was
To enjoy James L. Rubart’s contemporary/fantasy novel The Man He Never Was, you likely need to appreciate the core idea behind the genre of Christian social drama.
Many of God’s people love these kinds of stories, such as the movies Fireproof (2008) and God’s Not Dead (2014). They reflect scenarios that Christians often face in reality, such as child illness, marital discord, or societal pressures against the church.
But Rubart’s novel, despite surface similarity, comes with bonus fantastical twists.
Imagine if bitter husband Caleb (Kirk Cameron) from Fireproof actually became literally, physically fireproof. Or what if Josh, the college-debating student from God’s Not Dead, discovered he could hypnotically persuade atheist professors to confess faith in Jesus?
In either case, these characters’ spiritual journeys with supernatural edges would actually complicate their lives, rather than giving them simple solutions.
Thus The Man He Never Was opens when former football player Toren Daniels awakens in a strange hotel, emptied of his recent memories. To his shock, he’s also liberated from temptations to anger—the source of his separation from his wife, Sloane, and their two children. But quickly we discover such apparent miracles actually don’t provide easy solutions. Rather, Sloane has moved on with her life, relieved to be freed from covering up Toren’s temper and even acts of physical abuse against her. His children don’t know how to react to his “I’ve really changed” claims—especially since he can’t explain them. And Toren finds himself stalked by a sneering, thuggish old friend from the past.
From there, some elements can feel predictable, partly because book cover and story alike give away the story’s inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However, Rubart is careful to construct vivid settings and emotions, and builds in some unforeseen final twists. And fantasy fans may appreciate shout-outs to Hyde-inspired figures such as the Incredible Hulk.
Ultimately, The Man He Never Was provides a vital service for Christian readers. As C. S. Lewis remarked, “watchful dragons” guard us from truth, and familiar fantasy tales can smuggle truth into our hearts. Yet in this case, Rubart is stealing past “watchful lambs”: crafting tales about familiar real-life drama that can smuggle in the delight of fantasy.
Best for: Fans of Christian social drama who are curious about fantastical themes.
Discern: Family and marital conflict as well as intense scenes of emotional and physical abuse, including between a cruel father and vengeful son.
What say you?