The Follower by Nicholas Bowling

As the parent of twins, I can attest to the fact that twins can be as sweetly devoted yet as deeply strange as the siblings depicted in this novel. After the death of his father, the already rather odd Jesse Owens (yes, really) starts looking for meaning in all the most metaphysical places. His search leads him across an ocean and a continent to the Northern California town of Mount Hookey, where the inhabitants are devoted to the idea of a Crystal City in the mountain, as promised to them by John of Telos, a messianic figure from the 1970s who was enlightened by beings from a place? a race? a state of mind? called, unsurprisingly, Telos.

Since the 70s, any number of schools have sprung up around The Violet Path to Telos, and it’s to these that Jesse has applied his considerable mind and inherited fortune. His twin, Vivian, is used to his strangeness, to his inability to function well in mainstream society. When he goes missing, Vivian knows that it’s up to her to find him and bring him home.

Unfortunately, hippie NorCal is way out of her comfort zone, even before she’s violently mugged in the neighboring town of Lewiston while journeying to Jesse’s last known location. She enters Mount Hookey almost as a drifter, and soon finds herself trying to untangle a bewildering web of New Age offshoots and practitioners in her search for her twin. People are either overly helpful or shy away from her for no reason she can discern, but the one thing most of the residents agree on is that she shouldn’t go up the frigid, forested mountain, and certainly not by herself. But if that’s where Jesse went, Vivian will have no choice but to follow, even if it leads her straight to danger.

For all its brooding weirdness, The Follower is at its heart a satirical examination of New Age cults and the brutally cynical thinking behind them, threaded through with ideas on reaching your potential and what that means in our modern world. Tonally, it feels a lot like The X-Files, with a skeptical Vivian trying to find her much more believing brother in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, with a little bit of The Simpsons in both the appearance of a mysterious glowing figure and in the absurd, often oblivious humor of the townsfolk. The most touching part, to me, was the examination of family, the bond between siblings as well as the bond between parent and child. Parents don’t mean to ruin their children, mostly. The comparison of Vivian and Jesse’s relationship with their dysfunctional parents to the mindsets of the followers of Telos is thought-provoking, especially as a parent myself.

I actually wish that that comparison had been explored and extrapolated a little more. As it is, The Follower feels slight, almost as if it’s reaching for a deeper meaning but, like the Telurians, not quite getting there, perhaps on purpose. As a satire it works, with the family drama bringing in some needed pathos, but I still don’t understand certain plot points. Why were Vivian and Judy brought at that particular point in time to the stagnant lake? Who died in the shootout, and what’s the deal with the second lavender figure? I also thought that if the twins wanted any shot at healthy futures not mired in the crippling insecurity that governs their day to day, a better resolution should have been found with the corporate offices of Telos. The book ends on a wonderful image, but I feel that the plot threads needed to be wrapped up less ambiguously.

Overall, I found this book less compelling than Nicholas Bowling’s last novel Alpha Omega, a dystopian adaptation of Hamlet — and don’t think I didn’t scrutinize The Follower for parallels to Twelfth Night! But it was still an entertaining look at the mysteries of modern cults and modern families, and an overall fun and thoughtful if incomplete-feeling read.

The Follower by Nicholas Bowling was published July 20 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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