Of all the Bible's perplexities, the story of Cain and Abel is surely one of the most arresting. Why did God refuse Cain's sacrifice? Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did God mark Cain to preserve him from death? And what happened to Cain after he was exiled to a life of wandering? The Bible doesn't say, and these questions, together with myriad others, form the heart of Frank Durham's intriguing first novel, Cain's Version (Iroquois, 320 pp., $13.99).
According to Genesis, Cain and Abel were the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain, the older son, was a tiller of the soil; Abel was a shepherd. Cain's sacrifices to God were "the fruit of the ground," while Abel's were "the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof." God accepted Abel's blood sacrifice but rejected Cain's offering. God gave Cain no reason for rejecting this sacrifice (Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell suggest that violent animal sacrifice was revered among the primitive Hebrews), and, feeling unjustly judged, Cain killed Abel. Then God banished Cain to endless wandering "in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden." God sets a mark on Cain to prevent his ever being killed, and in Durham's recounting Cain wanders the world as the eternal embodiment of death.
Durham's tale is set in the present, with flashbacks to the time of the Garden and the flood. The protagonist is Lindy Caton, a Louisiana foundation director, who befriends three old women living in poverty. The women are Uhwa, whom the novel identifies as Eve, and Adhah and Seelah whom Genesis identifies as descendants of Eve several generations removed. Cain, represented here as a wandering old man, stalks the three women, seeking acceptance and forgiveness from his mother Uhwa/Eve for the death of Abel. As Uhwa rejects Cain, he takes and holds a young boy at knifepoint, replaying the story of Abraham and Isaac, but in Cain's Version God does not intervene to save the boy and Cain kills him. Lindy's ex-husband, a feckless preacher representing the presence of God, is powerless against Cain.
But this summary represents only the surface of Durham's remarkable novel. The book's sedimented layers of meaning and association generate an exhilarating intellectual puzzle. Freudian flags appear frequently, along with hints of other myths of creation, death and the flood. The novel is serious in tone and purpose, powerfully written in almost Biblical cadences which can transfix the reader. Consider the opening lines of the novel, with Cain speaking: "I will find my mother Eve by means of philosophy. Already by reasoning I have understood the Atlantic sea and the outlines of the new world, and have crossed the one and penetrated the mongrel greenness of the other. She cannot be far away." It's passages like this one that explain, far more than any plot summary could, why Cain's Version is a challenging and satisfying novel which calls out for a second reading, and maybe a third.
Durham is a retired professor from Tulane University who honed his writing skills at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. He lives in New Orleans and will appear at the Southern Festival of books Oct. 10-12.