The Man He Never Was

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


The Man He Never Was


James L. Rubart


Thomas Nelson

Publication Date:

February 20, 2018




384 pages


Toren Daniels used to be a pro NFL player with a wife and kids. Then his temper cost him his job and his abusive behavior at home drove his family away. And now he’s woken up in a strange hotel room with no memory of the last eight months. He starts putting things back together, wondering who took away his memories for those eight months and whether they can help him find other answers. Is it too late to become a new man and get back all that he’s lost?

Rubart knows how to write a convincing psychological thriller, and balances the various elements (shock reveals, flashbacks, etc.) with ease. The problem comes in the last act, where he reveals what kind of people have been manipulating his hero. The manipulators turn out to be benevolent people who want to push Toren into a space where he has to confront his inner darkness. Then the story veers from psychological thriller into fantasy (or perhaps magical realism) when Toren discovers the main antagonist is just a projection of his own darkness, an illusion he thought was a real person.

These two ideas can work well in some scenarios. The first is about a trickster or tricksters who seem to be toying with the hero but are actually forcing him to see his flaws. Classic fairytales and fables (such as Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Swineherd”) often play with this idea. Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton used a variation on the idea in his 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday. In Chesterton’s tale (which has some surprising similarities to Rubart’s novel), a policeman infiltrates an anarchist group and confronts the ringleader, who turns out to be on the side of the angels.

Unfortunately, this idea of a benevolent trickster only works in certain kinds of stories. In fables or fairytales, it’s clear we’re not supposed to imitate the trickster, just remember the moral they reveal. In Chesterton’s novel, the trickster turns out to be an allegorical figure representing God, and God can manipulate people without being evil (some theologians argue God even introduces pain into our lives to make us grow). Rubart’s novel is very much a serious psychological thriller until the last act, with every indication the story is taking place in the real world. So readers must assume the manipulators are human beings, which makes their deception problematic. Instead of being powerful and redemptive, the big reveal comes across like a Christian-themed version of the movie Shutter Island, with all the sinister implications ignored.

The second idea, jumping from realistic thriller to fantasy in the last act, could also have worked. Again, it’s very similar to what Chesterton does in The Man Who Was Thursday – his book starts as a spy thriller, than in the last act becomes an allegory where the main character represents one view of God and the ringleader represents God’s true form. Chesterton’s genre jump feels strange, but he makes it work because he adds odd and funny moments in the book’s earlier chapters. So by the time readers reach the big reveal, they know they weren’t reading a straight-up spy thriller anyway, more of a surreal fantasy. Chesterton even subtitled his thriller “A Nightmare,” hinting readers are in a bizarre ride. Rubart, in contrast, doesn’t include surreal or mystical elements to the first two-thirds of his novel. He hints at the conclusion, with characters referencing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he makes it sound like the hints a detective will use to uncover a conspiracy or murder. Everything in The Man He Never Was feels earth-bound until the last act. Thus, when Toren finds out his nemesis is just a phantom, readers must assume an earth-bound solution (a mental breakdown, schizophrenia, etc.).

A bold attempt to combine fantasy and conspiracy thriller which ultimately ends up just being confusing.

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

2.5 stars

Suggested Audience

Christians who like conspiracy thrillers with interesting spiritual themes.

Christian Impact

Rubart works in many ideas about anger, brokenness and forgiveness, especially with his references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. As noted above, the way he mixes genres undercuts those ideas. Still, there are moments where his descriptions of anger and the need for reconciliation are quite compelling.

The Man He Never Was

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