A review of The End of Good Intentions by David Borofka

Reviewed by Nancy Spiller

The End of Good Intentions
by David Borofka
September 2023, Paperback, 458 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1953236913

In David Borofka’s novel, The End of Good Intentions, the road to hell is paved with them. Borofka’s achievement is in not only showing us the road, but the paving process, and how some may be run off that road into a ditch. After a lengthy absence from the form, Borofka returns with a multitude of lively characters headed for various hells.

Besides being a fan of Borofka’s short story collection, A Longing For Impossible Things, the novel’s attraction for me is a lifelong curiosity about what people believe and where they place their faith. I’ve always considered the bible a terrific short story collection, but primarily fiction.

In Good Intentions, Borofka engages both with the deeply religious and the much less so. He paints a granular picture of how some church folk have arrived at the current evangelical extremes and how others have fallen away. Set against the back drop of American culture and history from the 1970s, the age of politically progressive Protestantism, right up to contemporary times and the expansive hell right wing evangelicals want to make for us all. Letting readers draw their own conclusions, Borofka does this in deft strokes that never seem strident or extreme.

The book conveys a sense of how evangelicals, so often made fun of by secular media, are worth a cautious gaze. Before reading Good Intentions, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the news story of Pope Francis firing a conservative Texas archbishop who criticized his efforts to make the church more inclusive of women and LGBQT+ people. Now, I read it with a new awareness that conservative Catholics may be pursuing the kind of voter base building evangelicals have excelled at. Who wouldn’t want to deliver potential voters to a candidate willing to do your bidding, especially if that includes biblical decrees against women’s rights and LGBQT+ folk?

The story begins with two born again, self-confessed ‘fuckup’ cousins who take the true faith too far. Unhappy with Sierra Presbyterian College, a campus tucked into the Sierra foothills (Fresno is the nearest Big City) because “they desecrate the holy with their casual disregard,” the fellows climb up two of three wooden crosses outside the college chapel and set themselves on fire. This gruesome act of immolation is a thread running through the book, a reminder of the insidious nature of extremism.

It’s hard to summarize this sprawling, collage of a novel, so intertwined are the stories, so numerous are the characters, all happening at so many different times, including 9/11 and beyond. It reminded me of Doctorow’s Ragtime, or a teeming-with-life Shakespearean play. Considering its subject, the shift of a progressive, liberal Christian college to one of conservative evangelicals, it also might be described as a felted vestment, or, appropriate to its setting in California’s Sierra foothills, it could be compared to a mycelium blanket running beneath a forest. In the end, we gain a powerful sense of the ways all things are connected and how actions have consequences.

And while the characters are numerous, from a closeted gay professor, his pathetic wife wed out of politeness, the college counselor who conducted services in the chapel that fateful 70s night, to a Jewish girl carrying massive guilt for not being in New York for 9/11, and on and on. You can’t dismiss any, because all will eventually have their time on the stage. Even two annoying old bar patrons eventually get their sympathetic turn.

By the 1990s, Sierra Presbyterian College, a socially conscious, progressive school, has become Liberty Christian College. The Prospectors football team is now called the Patriots, a sporting marriage of church and state. Characters with ties to the school then and now illustrate the deeper meaning of the name change. Michael Wayte is the soul of the story. With a name carrying “connotations of mass or importance, sorrow or gravitas,” he was a seminary graduate from the ‘70s whose only aspiration then was to find a church, settle down, do the family and clergy thing. Sierra Presbyterian was “a religious school, not stridently so,” he observes, “unlike the reeducation camp Liberty Christian would become.” Or as another character notes, “Sierra Pres had prepared ministers and teachers, LCC prepared televangelists, fundraisers, conservative politicians, anti-abortion crusaders.”

After Michael’s graduation, the girl he loved having left him for Jesus, he buys a bar, O’Malleys, that is miles away and lower in elevation than the college, but still above Fresno’s smog. The bar becomes his church. Emitting the occasional roar is a nearby tiger rescue facility, a reminder of our animal natures. Michael’s flock includes Coach Bonaventura, who led the football team Michael played for in 1975, but is now being fired for a losing season.

Joining him on the chopping block is Reverend Felton Richards, a student counselor, and 70s Sierra Presbyterian graduate. Back then he says, “God was not particularly necessary, the concept only a shorthand for describing higher human aspiration as distinct from baser impulses.”

At one point, the two men join in a kind of O’Malley’s communion, sipping wine that tasted “Like grapes from a terroir of pesticide and sandpaper.”

Tirelessly serving up the bar’s bad wine and watered down beer is Elisa, while her son Gil attends the Christian college on a swimming scholarship. She has a complicated connection to the burning cross episode and this is her thanks. She considers herself “a grubby little upstart…looking up at the bottom of the middle class rung.” Life at O’Malley’s may eventually redeem her.

College Board President Bobby Thornton, a local sporting goods businessman, is responsible for the countless firings. But first he attempts to beef up the college’s football program by bringing in a born again ex-con. That player’s initial game results in a leg amputating injury, but he goes on to marry the college’s soon-to-be-fired female president’s daughter. That president, Cheryl Newland, notes that the Fresno area “bore a great deal of resemblance to the Holy Land in its climate, its crops and its pent-up hostilities.”

By 2016 and without naming names, another president is being installed, this one to lead the country, as “God’s man at long last and the end of the national nightmare of liberal smugness and secular humanism.” An observation worthy of the late great Colbert Report’s alternative reality.

Then along comes Joshua Bowen, a former student and security guard, who establishes a sex cult “family” off campus, inspired by the nineteenth-century principles of John Humphrey Noyes and his Oneida Community. Threatened with eviction from the property, he starts another memorable bonfire turned tragic wildfire.

All ends, if not well, at least on a note of hope, as Michael has Elisa, the woman he loves, and a dog her dying brother left them with whom he tolerates. The tigers, there is reason to believe, are saved from the flames. Good Intentions is a wild ride of a novel and a testament to Borofka’s command of his material and intelligent observations regarding an aspect of American society few of us know as much about, but all need to know more. Me, I’m keeping an eye out on that fired Texas Archbishop.

About the reviewer: Nancy Spiller is a writer, artist and educator living on Los Angeles’ wild western edge. She is the author of: Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned from My Mother’s Recipe Box. and Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (With Recipes)and teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. This March 2-3 she’ll be teaching Words and Pictures: Weekend Workshop in Creative Writing From Visual Art on Zoom. The link for more info or to enroll is: https://www.uclaextension.edu/writing-journalism/creative-writing/course/words-and-pictures-weekend-workshop-creative-writing

More can be found at http://nancyspiller.org.