Book Review: Maybe Another Afternoon

Rex Forrest Johnson. An Afternoon with Cody. Sioux Falls, SD: Pine Hills Press, 2006.

Rating: 2 out of 5

“I am sandwiched between a seventy something woman and an even older looking man with a headset on listening to some very loud music. I can feel the vibrations of the tune as I stood next to the old geezer. Imagine what it is doing to his brain! Can we say, ‘mush brain?’ He is just bobbing his head up and down, back and forth, having a good old time…. He is oblivious to what is gong on until I tap him on the shoulder and point to my seat between them. I sat down between them and thought to myself that if this trip is 1400 miles, it is going to feel like 2800. The old man started tapping on both of his knees with open hands as if he was playing drums. The old woman and I looked at each other and smiled. I could not resist. I had to know to whom he was listening to. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, ‘Who are you listening to?’ He responded with a shout ‘Def Leppard.’ I thought to myself, ‘Who in the world is Def Leppard?’ I just nodded my head and smiled. I thought, okay dude, whatever.”

In Rex Forrest Johnson’s new Christian novella An Afternoon with Cody, the narrator and central character Walter Withers grows to learn and appreciate the strange old man with the headphones. Yet this reviewer’s journey into the book’s fictional future made the 112 pages seem more like 224 or so.

The book’s theme is primarily evangelistic, using the changed life of 72-year-old title character Cody Brill to testify the loving power of Christ to a New York sportswriter 50 years his junior. Woven inside the tale of their summertime encounter at the Sioux Falls airport is Cody’s retelling of his life story, primarily his days as a martial-arts competitor and the conflict to be overcome with his family life.

Easily the most compelling and most interesting substance of An Afternoon with Cody is the background of the aged, eccentric character. Whatever genuine emotional and spiritual gravity is to be found in the story lies therein. It’s what kept the pages turning. I would have loved to see this part of the story developed more.

Elements of the title character appear to have been inspired by the author’s own life, a longtime martial-arts instructor, husband and father who recently moved from Pennsylvania to Dell Rapids, South Dakota. Following the production of two “Christ centered screenplays,” An Afternoon with Cody is Johnson’s first novel.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole falls well short in the chronological setting. While the book is advertised as being set in the year 2020, there is very little painted in the text to convey a sense of what makes the near future at all different from 2006.

I was left wanting more, so much more of a sense of what had changed with the times. In Johnson’s future, terrorism is commonplace but seemingly trivial. America appears to be ethnically and culturally monochrome. Virtually no new technologies are introduced to spur the imagination. Instead the reader is left to believe the scarcely realistic notion that America’s secular scientific community has foisted Intelligent Design on all public school students to distract their attention from the Creator. One is left to wonder whether the author has studied the basic contours of the origins debate at all.

Johnson’s vision of a society driven deeper into moral deterioriation almost seems trite by today’s standards. While it is good that the author is conscious of a family audience and steers clear from the gratuitous, it seems there would be a way to convey deeper symptoms of alienation and depravity than the assertion that by 2020 God’s name has been removed from U.S. currency. Even so, how did American evangelicals allow their elite institutions to strip God from the public square?

The author suggests that the surviving churches in American cities circa 2020 are mere remnants of a dried-up formalism. While the gospel is a remedy for cold hearts, Cody goes too far to dumb down the Trinity to “the three amigos.” Likewise, Withers’ appellation of “Buddy Jesus” demonstrates a too shallow conception of the Savior’s majesty. But shallow theology only follows naturally from an apparently shallow conversion experience.

Before making an unexpected layover in Sioux Falls, the young sportswriter has walked through life with no serious understanding of religious or spiritual ideas and no familiarity with biblical language, truths, or stories. Yet despite no serious trauma or crisis, one mere afternoon’s conversation with the unusual sage appears destined to drastically reorient his faith, reshape his life, and develop a love for Def Leppard.

The text also is littered with technical mistakes that detract from the flow of the story. As exemplified in the passage above, an abundance of typographical errors, inconsistent verb tenses, and dangling prepositions – along with the claim that King David’s story is located in the book of Acts – belie the acknowledgment that the novella had at least five different proofreaders.

After another round of careful editing, An Afternoon with Cody could better be condensed into a gospel tract booklet or expanded into a full-length novel with a richer setting and deeper character development. Otherwise the best this reviewer could say is: “Okay dude, whatever.”

Ben DeGrow, M.A., Husband, Father, Church Leader, Student of Scripture

Thanks to Stacy Harp at Active Christian Media for the opportunity to read and comment on this book. No remuneration was paid for this review.

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