Dumpster, for God’s Sake: An interview with Ben Stoltzfus

  1. What is your novel about?

Dumpster is a novel about Loviers City—an imaginary town that believes cleanliness is next to Godliness. The Reverend Peter Newell, Pastor of the First Unanimist Church, wants Godliness. His parishioners, as a group, become Godly. David Goodhew, Mayor of Loviers City, wants cleanliness. His followers, as a group, want what he wants. Carmen Grace, Director of the Arts Council, writes and talks about identity and the self-consciousness of groups. She and Tony Thatcher, a couple, form the smallest group. So do Jasmine Khalid, a teenager, and Rudy Squazza, a homeless person. Rudy becomes the leader of the homeless, another group, and Jasmine, the main witness to the apparition of the Virgin Mary, assumes a notoriety of her own. She dresses in black leather, rides a red Ducati Supersport 750, and is known as the “Angel from Hell.” These characters and many others inhabit Loviers City—the novel’s main character. Basically, the novel is about the behavior of groups, and because Loviers City is the largest group, the city is the main character. Other entities play a role. When Loviers Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the music melds the auditorium into joyful cohesion. A citywide poetry contest brings disparate units together, as women, the homeless, Latinx, and others listen to the judges read the winning poems. Poetry molds the different groups into larger self-aware units. But Loviers City is a town of contradictions: Godliness, the Virgin, Dianetics, a  zorgone box, frozen heads, a cryonics center, and the suicidal impulses of Heaven’s Preamble—a millennial cult—all lead an uneasy coexistence. Every one of these groups displays a longing for fulfillment, happiness, and immortality. They highlight Loviers City’s quest for soul, and events climax in one big comedic rock and roll gig of the Rolling Bones—the most successful display of collective soul and group joy.

2. What is the significance of the title “Dumpster, for God’s Sake”?

A dumpster is a large trash container. I chose it for the title of the novel because Loviers City wants to be Godly. Its residents believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness; and the only way to be cleanly and Godly is to gather the city’s refuse, dump in a dumpster, and dispose of it.

3. In Dumpster, for God’s Sake, humor plays a significant role alongside sociological themes. Can you discuss the importance of using humor to convey complex ideas and engage readers in the narrative?

The proverb “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” expresses the idea that people who are pure and wholesome are close to God. It refers to moral purity as well as personal hygiene. The residents of Loviers City strive to fulfill both ideals. Dumpster is therefore a satire because its humor and irony are a commentary not only on the residents’ behavior but also on what happens to their city after a sighting of the Virgin Mary.  The irony stems from the subversion of their Godly efforts by devout people from all over the world who travel to Loviers City to p(r)ay their respects. Protestants pray, and The Lord’s Prayer is how they communicate with God. Catholics pray to the Virgin, and a Hail Mary is their preferred means of communion with the divine. The comic irony is that the SS, the sanitary squadrons of Loviers City—the trash collectors, the trucks, and the dumpsters—can’t keep pace with the refuse discarded by the thousands of pilgrims who are unaware of the city’s motto. The irony stems from the fact that the people who come to see the place where the Virgin was sighted undermine the city’s efforts to be Godly. Its “collective consciousness” (a term coined by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim) is swept aside, and its coherence as a city vanishes. The fact that God and the Virgin Mary seem to be at odds is the paradoxical play on religion that the novel’s author hopes will elicit a wry smile from the reader. Durkheim’s study of groups–how societies maintain their coherence–laid the groundwork for modern sociology. His oeuvre, like Dumpster, was dedicated to demonstrating that religious phenomena originated from social factors, not divine intervention.

4. One of the fascinating aspects of your novel is the central role played by women, challenging the dominant objectification of females. What inspires you to create such influential female characters like Jasmine and Garcia?

Dumpster describes the behavior of groups.That was my primary interest; anda group is composed of people. The smallest group is two people. Jasmine Khalid and Rudy Squazza are one couple;Carmen Grace and Tony Thatcher are another.Jasmine and Carmen are interesting and influential because of what they do and how they relate to other people.Jasmine functions in relation to Rudy, her boyfriend, and Carmen identifies her womanhood in relation to Tony, her husband. They both have careers that have separated them geographically, but they still function together as a couple, albeit it in different cities. Perhaps the most influential woman is the Virgin Mary. Her sighting emblazoned on the trunk of a peppertree in the river bottom is what brings all the visitors to Loviers City. They discard paper, plastic, and refuse, besmirching the city’s All-America vision of purity and spotlessness.

5. Do you think when hero worship flourishes, the messenger becomes more important than the message they practice, even in cases where the characters have witnessed the first appearance of the Virgin and are regarded as charismatic beings?

Jasmine is the teenager the public credits with having seen the Virgin appear. She is not only the messenger of this miracle but also a heroine in her own right. It’s hard to say, however, that she is more important than the message. Her sighting reminds the faithful of Juan Diego who, in 1531, saw the Virgin of Guadalupe; and the Mexican Virgin asked him to build a shrine where She appeared. The irony in Dumpster is that Jasmine builds a Buddhist shrine where her Virgin appeared, not a Christian one. And the bust is that of Rudy Squazza. But Jasmine is also an aspiring writer who wins a prize about the sighting of the Virgin. She and Gregor Rissotto, her teacher, discuss the differences between life and art because he too is writing a novel, a counterfeit of Loviers Ciy, named Americus.

6.  “Money also speaks, and the world’s markets rise and fall in concert with the vagaries of the economy. The force of Wall Street is as potent as religion. Sometimes investors are the only believers.” How significant is religion and faithful gatherings in your novel?

Very significant. The preaching of Reverend Newell at the First Unanimist Church galvanizes his parishioners to act and make Loviers City spotless so they can be next to God. After the sighting of the Virgin, faith propels thousands of people from     every corner of the globe to visit the spot where She appeared.

7. The consensus and legitimacy held by the characters were not only intensified with religious consciousness but also moral consciousness. The killing of crows and estranged behavior towards homeless people, seen as legitimate, can be traced back to Durkheim’s understanding of crime, as quoted: “We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.” Do you think religion can lead to dysfunctionality or not?

Not necessarily but it can and does happen. La Sainte Barthélémy massacre of French Huguenots in France on August 24-25, 1572, was one event in a series of civil wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the late 16th century. The animus between Shia and Sunni has led to fighting in the Middle East. In the United States, Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, despite his misogyny, racism, lies, and bluster.

8. The novel includes poems that intensify meaningful engagement with the people and the city. Do you believe your poetry acts as a “voice for the voiceless” and leads to lasting realizations?

The poetry in Dumpster is, to some degree, the voice of the voiceless. The poem, “Women Arise,” by Pamela Ostrow, gives voice to women, the second-class citizens of the world, urging them to oppose man’s historic dominance. Rudy Squzza’s poem, “Homeless,” gives the homeless people of Lovier’s City a voice that is seldom heard. The poem by Chauncey Trapp, “You the Audience,” is in another category altogether.    He is addressing the audience in the auditorium, reminding it that as a group it is composed of people, not one person; he urges the group to be conscious of its identity, to transform itself and become a god. There are different kinds of groups in Dumpster. Loviers City is one group, the homeless are another, the audience in the auditorium is molded into a group by the words of Trapp; and Carmen Grace and Tony, a miniscule couple, is a group of two. When Rudy Squazza blocks downtown traffic, he draws attention to himself, and the consciousness of the street is focused on him. He “deifies” the street. As for lasting realizations, that is debatable but worth trying.

9. Your book has been described as “profoundly dystopian and completely believable.” What aspects of the story did you draw from real-life sociological observations, and how did you weave them into the fictional narrative?

Every fiction writer imbues their work with real-life observations, be they sociological, psychological, etc. As for weaving these observations into my narrative, the only way to find out is to read Dumpster. I might add, however, that real-life observation can also be found in other writers’ works, and that reading fiction, essays, memoir, or learned tracts is not only informative but also transformative. For example: there is no Unanimist Church in America. The word “unanimism” was coined in 1906 by Jules Romains and Georges Chennevière, two writers inspired by the works of Émile Durkheim, who were looking for a term that would describe their own work. Their writings, like Dumpster, focused on the consciousness of groups. In addition to the groups already described there is a Dianetics cult, a cryonic cult, and Heaven’s Preamble, a millennial cult that aspires to propel its members into orbit and    salvation.

 10. The novel also depicts concerns over the omnipresence of technology in our lives. As quoted, “People prefer entertainment news, talk shows, funny videos, scary police chases, sex on the Internet, websites, you name it. Letter writing was once an art form. Now, it’s texting and tweets. We want instant communication, contact without substance.” In your opinion, how has technology alienated people from their true essence of living, turning them into mere consumers and producers

I suppose it all began with radio and the telephone, then television, the computer, and the internet, with its social platforms. Each technological advance facilitated. Instant, incremental advances in communication. In the beginning it was two or three people on the telephone, then thousands on the radio, and millions on television. With the internet, it’s billions. Contact on the internet, however, is fleeting. People once wrote long letters. Now we text and email a few words, a form of communication constantly interrupted by commercials. No wonder we feel alienated. Consumerism has transformed us from human beings into robots whose fleeting attention span is guided toward gratification. Buy this, buy that. Also, consider the trolls. A recent study shows that the internet is bad not only for the health of tweens but also teenagers. I almost forgot. In the beginning were the purveyors of snake oil.

11. Another characteristic of Loviers City is insightful metaphors and conflicting characters with mysterious lifestyles. What do the Africanized bees represent in the book?

The bees, like the crows, are yet another force of nature gone awry. The bees escaped from a lab in Brazil in the 1950s, migrated north, and crossed into North America, colonizing honeybees along the way. It was the explosion of the crow population that challenged Loviers’ motto of cleanliness. They were raining walnuts and droppings on houses, cars, and swimming pools. How could a city be Godly when the trash collectors could not keep pace with the messes on the streets? God comes first, does He not? So, when exterminating the crows becomes yet another problem for the trash collectors, because they cannot keep up with birds dropping dead in the streets, the purity of the city suffers.

12. There are many emerging characters who not only question the morality but also the roots of religious dogma, as shown in the works of Durkheim about the dilemma of morality and religion. What do you think, is religion the outcome of morality or is morality the outcome of religion?

It’s an enigma, like the Moebius strip, simultaneously inside itself and outside.

13. The novel explores the experiences of marginalized groups and the historical oppression they have faced. As quoted in the novel, “Household trash is bad enough, but human trash is worse.” Could you please elaborate on your decision to incorporate subaltern identities in your story and shed light on the significance of addressing this theme?

Insofar as Dumpster is about the identity and behavior of groups, the homeless are another group within Loviers City. That’s why Jasmine Khalid decides to study them, and, in the process, falls in love with Rudy Squazza, their leader. He, however, may not be representative of individuals who comprise it. He is bright, well-read, and a voluntary dropout from the “eight to five” rat race. Nonetheless as their leader, he gives the homeless an identity, and that’s why I chose him. After the fire in the river bottom, the homeless move into the park, where their presence intrudes on the daily routine and expectations of Loviers’ residents. They resent the disruption, and, in retaliation, compare them to crows and trash, an example of psychological displacement. A bit of history. After President Ronald Reagan closed the mental hospitals in California, the patients, with no place to go, ended up on the streets. Indeed, many of today’s homeless are either poor or mentally challenged. They become dumpster-divers to survive. The food, clothing, medicine, and cash that Rudy finds while dumpster-diving is typical of homeless behavior.

14. The character Minguss stands out for their thought-provoking perspective and challenging attitude, encouraging readers to question their beliefs and seek answers. What inspired you to create such a character like Minguss and their role in the story?

Bernard Mingus is an SPCA activist upset by the deliberate extermination of the crows. He invades a city council meeting to vent his anger, shoots and wounds the mayor, is arrested, tried, and sent to prison.From his cell he writes impassioned letters to Hazel Broom, editor of the city newspaper, agitating for a new Reformation to bring Catholics and Protestants back together. Loviers City is suffering a similar schism; a once Protestant entity it has lost its identity because thousands of undocumented immigrants, tourists, and cultists, in visiting the spot where the Virgin appeared, and by discarding their refuse have unwittingly destroyed the city’s Godly vision of itself. The Virgin, the very symbol of Catholicism, has again challenged the Protestant concept of communicating directly with God without the intervention of the Virgin. Meanwhile Capitalism and the profit motive triumph, Ziad Khalid’s business thrives, the tourist industry thrives, and Loviers City, in its new incarnation, is  worshiping the “Golden Calf.”

15. After the transmission of Loviers City to the City of Virgin, many practices of cleanliness and collective solidarity transform into consumerism and materialism, emphasizing the sacredness of the Virgin. How challenging was it to write about such a shift in context and ideas?

The ultimate transition, after the first two, is to become a City of Lucre. There is irony in the fact that the true believers, the visitors themselves, depart, leaving the city to deal with their refuse. Writing is always a challenge, but in this case, the transition itself was easy. There is a fundamental logic to it. The premise has not changed, and     the ideas flow easily once you accept the Protestant/Catholic/Lucre frame of reference. Another easy transition was to the millennial cults, especially Heaven’s Preamble, the cult that promised its members admission to heaven on a rocket ship. Their leader molds the identity of the group. He tells them what to do, and the disciples listen. That’s what Chauncey Tripp did when reading his poem, “Homeless.” Then there’s Hitler, a charismatic leader who destroyed Germany, demonstrating that leaders can be agents of evil as well as good.

16. Your books are a unique perspective, creative, and they reflect the experience and knowledge you have gained throughout your writing journey. Could you please share with us any details about your upcoming books? We are excited to read them.

A book entitled Baja—The Puma Drinks the New Moonwill come out soon. As with Romoland, it’s a collaboration with Judith Palmer—her photoetchings and pen-and-ink-Drawings, my text and haiku. We are also working on a biofiction memoir about her extraordinary life entitled Big JP—The Nine Lives of Judith Palmer.

 17. As someone who has experienced many ups and downs, what advice would you give to younger generations on how to navigate life’s challenges and find happiness?

   A stiff upper lip, perseverance, and a sense of humor.

  18. Looking back on your 96 years of life, what do you consider to be the most significant changes that have occurred in the world?

World War II and the rise of Hitler. The A-bomb. The end of the war in 1945. Decolonization, The Cold War, “Glaznost,” the rise of China, Africa and India, the demise of the Arab Spring, the wars in the Middle East, and the war in Ukraine. On the technological front its television, the computer, the internet, and AI. There have been huge advances in medicine, brain science, Astrophysics (the James Webb space telescope), chemistry (plastic, alas!), biology, and genomics (The double helix).

“Dumpster, for God’s Sake” by Ben Stoltzfus is a thought-provoking and satirical exploration of politics, religion, and human collectiveness. With its witty humor and clever commentary, this book offers an engaging and insightful reading experience. Available now on Amazon.

Also Read: Unveiling the Layers of Romoland: An Interview with Ben Stoltzfus and Judith Palmer on their Powerful Pictonovel Journey

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