Running From The Devil

Running From The Devil

When I was growing up, I went to church and Sunday school every week. Although my religious upbringing was strict (I was raised by Southern Baptists, who famously considered teenage dancing to be a gateway drug to full-blown Satanism), it didn’t take. By the time I was in high school, I was entirely in the sway of the secular world, and while I would still occasionally attend services to placate one parent or another, all the stuff I was taught as a kid seemed corny and faintly embarrassing.

That didn’t mean the people I grew up with gave up on saving my soul, though.  From the time I started identifying as an atheist, suburban evangelizers tried, unconvincingly, to claim that they too had once been unbelievers, skeptics, and agents in the eternal war against God. I never doubted their conviction, but their stories just didn’t add up. They were good people pretending to be bad, and that works about as well as dumb people pretending to be smart. They just didn’t have the experience to back up their claims. I left them behind and never looked back.

Steve Kissing—who, according to his biography, is a sought-after motivational speaker and public relations executive—has a similar problem in his sometimes charming but overall flat adolescent memoir, Running from the Devil. Kissing grew up in Cincinnati as a smart and determined kid, motivated to excel and dedicated to his Catholic faith. Like, well, pretty much every American boy in the late 1970s, he told wild stories, drank, and lusted after every pretty girl in his class; but unlike most kids, he was visited by disturbing and sometimes terrifying visions that only he could see. Not realizing that he was, in fact, subject to frequent seizures and accompanying hallucinations, he attributed these visions to something that made plenty of sense to his religiously trained mind: the sinister hand of Satan.

The teenage mind is a frightening place, flooded as it is with gobs of hormones, new and perplexing stimuli, unanswerable questions, and so much sex. Add to that unexplained seizures and accompanying visions of torment, and you’ve got a pretty compelling reason to believe you might really be haunted by the Devil. Kissing’s story is at its best when he tries to recreated the cause-and-effect reasoning that led him to this belief, and to the simultaneous belief that his own immoral behavior was opening the door to further visitations from the Prince of Darkness. The problem is, even by the standards of the 1970s, Kissing didn’t really do anything all that bad. Puking up cheap beer, feeling up whatever girl would let him, and setting a handful of baby gerbils loose in the woods isn’t exactly Richard Ramirez levels of evil, so his attempts to contrast his goody-two-shoes attempts to become a track star and gain a leadership position in his local Catholic Youth Organization with his belief that his misdeeds were opening the door to constant attacks by the Lord of Lies fall a bit flat. All I could think of were all my dad’s friends trying in vain to convince me that they, too, had once been unbelievers, druggies, and criminals until they finally saw the light. They may have all had a fall from grace, but it was more like falling off the couch than being cast out of Paradise.

Kissing’s collaborators don’t do him many favors. Scriptwriter Charles Santino (ex-Conan the Barbarian) whips the story into decent enough shape, and gets off a few funny lines, but there’s not much to remember here, and most of the narration tells when it ought to show. And speaking of showing, the art by X-Men alumnus Jim Jiminez doesn’t help the story much either. It’s flat and flavorless, and while one of Kissing’s strengths is his ability to conjure a pretty specific sense of place when he talks about his Cincinnati childhood, Jiminez’s renditions of it are extremely bland and generic. At least one panel a page has no background at all, which seems more lazy than deliberate, and in a story that’s so dependent on being a personal memoir of a certain time and place, it fails to make it seem like the sort of real, lived-in place that the author so clearly remembers.

After a lively start, Running from the Devil also runs into pacing problems as its story comes to an end. The reveal that Kissing’s hallucinations were caused by seizures from a minor brain trauma turns out to be pretty anti-climactic, as he eventually stops taking medication and they just go away; after that, the narrative just sort of peters out with no real payoff. There’s no big revelations, no heel turns or face turns, no follow-up with any of the other characters; even the background color of his parents’ divorce doesn’t really go anywhere, and all the buildup involving the intensity of his Catholic faith—which leads, late in the game, to a decision to join the priesthood—goes nowhere, fizzling out in the last few pages into a non-ending where he gradually loses his connection to his religion. Not an uncommon result for devout kids who go to college, granted, but what have we learned, everybody? Not much.

Judging from the publisher, the press materials, and the questions for discussion at the end of the book (charmingly titled “conversation starters”), Running from the Devil is meant to serve some kind of educational purpose. This may account for the way it pulls its punches, straying into the periphery of sex but never quite crossing the Rubicon, and the fact that it doesn’t have any bad language, which is more difficult to believe than anything involving Lucifer. Its simple presentation and straightforward narrative may make it seem like an effective pedagogical tool, but even leaving aside the fact that it’s not clear what lesson it’s trying to teach, Kissing’s own past just doesn’t have the kind of edge that would hook younger readers into the story. His boys-gone-mild narrative is decorated with a war for his very soul, but kids today aren’t likely to find it all that compelling given the low stakes. Even the angels would probably tell him to relax and live a little.