I enjoyed every page of Holy Hell. I love books that grab you on the very first page, or in this case, the very first sentence, and hold you until the final word. Plot alone propels many stories with little else for the reader to think about other than what will happen next. Holy Hell contains much more, and presents a feast of things to think about and reflect upon. It does this by taking you on a multi-layered odyssey seen through the eyes, mind, and heart of young Tom Larsen, its protagonist and narrator. I immediately felt myself bonding with Tom whose completely natural and candid speech makes you feel like you've known him for years. He holds nothing back, and invites you to sit beside him and experience the roller coaster highs and lows of his childhood. I have encountered no author who can so perfectly describe the inner world of a preschooler's mind. Lorenz takes the reader inside Tom Larsen's four-year old head and lets him see with his eyes and hear with his ears the puzzling, contradictory, and often frightening world of his family life. With laser-like accuracy he describes the simple, yet totally logical thoughts and feelings of a precocious child trapped in an abusive environment.
When Tom begins Catholic grammar school, Sister Ethel Rita starts him on the classical religious indoctrination which has remained basically unchanged for generations. His perceptive and often humorous comments about these lessons are priceless. Holy Hell's subtitle is "A Catholic Boy's Story," and anyone who has attended these schools will identify with the accurate portrayal of religion class with the nuns. Tom learns about the devil, sin, and the terrible, fiery torments of hell. It is against this backdrop of sin and damnation that Tom's greatest crisis emerges when, as puberty arrives, he realizes he is gay. Eventually he seeks salvation by joining a religious order and entering a seminary boarding school splendidly isolated from the rest of the world in the foothills of the Ozarks. The title is appropriate because the very thing Tom Larsen hopes will save him, the religious life, turns out to be his greatest torment.
The story of how he goes from the cloistered, sterile, silent halls of a monastery to the crowded, chaotic, dangerous halls of a ghetto high school is fascinating. How he finally calms the inner turmoil and conflict that tortures him is surprising and uplifting. And always along the way, you are treated to the perceptive and thoroughly interesting workings of Larsen's first-rate mind. Holy Hell is the best book I've read in recent memory.
John T DuBois