Yearning to find a better life and, more specifically, a purpose in life, is universal and natural. So it’s easy to see how the characters in Brian Castleberry’s debut novel, Nine Shiny Objects, each disillusioned and frustrated by their dead-end lives, would embrace a cultish quest toward utopia on earth.
Things start innocently enough as Oliver Danville, a failed-actor-turned-hustler in 1947 Chicago, reads of an aviator who sees nine bright objects in the sky. Convinced that there’s nothing for him where he is, Oliver hitchhikes west, looking for “a sign that might lead to his true calling.” Before long he dubs himself the Tzadi Sophit, leader of the Seekers, a community of outcasts and idealists with dreams of a society free of racial, ethnic, sexual and social bigotry.
Castleberry could easily have followed Oliver’s exploits from there, but instead he switches gears. Each subsequent chapter jumps ahead in the narrative by five years, introducing another character—a down-on-her-luck waitress, a traveling book salesperson/aspiring songwriter, a painter, a radio host, a poet, a teenager and others—and chronicling how their lives intersect with the Seekers. If that sounds busy and even confusing, it is; you may need a set of cue cards to help keep track of who’s who.
Much of the story revolves around a pivotal event in the establishment of Oliver’s community, in which an outsider attacks one of its members, leading the Seekers to resettle in a Long Island subdivision. But if the Seekers think things will get easier for them, any New Yorker could tell them otherwise.
The scope of the novel—from its vast conspiracies and social commentary to its decades-long timeline—is at times impressive to behold. Castleberry’s intricate narration (some sentences seem to run on for pages at a time) may even compel you to read some passages over again just to make sure you didn’t miss something. But it’s worth it to take your time and savor this one.