Four college boys — Eli, the scholarly Jew; Timothy, the debauched WASP; Oliver, the ambitious Kansas farmboy; and Ned, the wanton homosexual — travel Arizona over Easter break to visit a mysterious monastery that promises the gift of eternal life. Such a gift can only come at a terrible price.
The first two-thirds of this book are a bit of a slog; the characters are all pretty despicable, with casual misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism sprinkled through their alternating first-person narrative chapters. The trip from their unnamed prestigious East Coast school to Arizona, by way of New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, is a dull procession of sexual escapades and hours on the road, with bits of their personal histories told in flashback. Spending so much time inside the heads of these characters, particularly Timothy, is grueling.
Once at the House of Skulls, things pick up a bit. The monastery is indeed mysterious, and their days are spent learning to meditate, working in the fields that provide food to the isolated house, and listening to the history of the order, which may derive from some ancient Atlantean cult, or may simply be a mad undertaking by men whose brains have been addled by too much desert sun. The inevitable conclusion, which has been hinted at since the beginning, comes abruptly and violently, and the mysteries of the Book of Skulls remain mysterious.
There are certainly rich and intriguing ideas scattered throughout “The Book of Skulls,” though maybe not quite enough to sustain a novel with the kinds of characters we’re given. I’m happy to leave Eli, Timothy, Oliver, and Ned to their desert fates, having spent a bit too much time rattling around in their unremarkable heads.