Reviews — From the July 2014 issue

Strange Loop

Robert Coover returns to realism

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The Origin of the Brunists is set in the Midwestern town of West Condon. One day in January, the local coal mine blows up. The high school gym is converted into a temporary morgue. A newspaperman collects the names of the dead. He regards the scene — “black bodies, burnt and gas bloated” — with unblinking clarity. A woman asks the attendants to remove the shoe of one of the corpses, to check whether it has a corn plaster like the one she applied to her husband’s foot before his shift:

The shoeless foot stuck out screaming nude on the end of the black leg, a blistery glowing pink vegetable thing attached to the charred leg stump like a mushroom. There was a corn plaster too, but the woman didn’t think it was the same kind.

The disaster spares only one miner: Giovanni Bruno, who is found alive but catatonic. The free indirect perspective jumps from character to character, but the narrative is never filtered through Bruno’s consciousness; he forms the novel’s hollow core. Around his bedside gather a motley group of zealots, each interpreting the miracle of his survival in a different way. One, the widow of a Nazarene preacher who died in the mine, believes her husband’s garbled farewell letter — “I dissobayed and I know I must Die. Listen allways to the Holy Spirit in your Harts Abide in Grace. We will stand Together befor Our Lord the 8th of . . . ” — is a prophecy. Another claims to receive messages from an extradimensional being named Domiron. A third is a numerologist who scans the papers for omens. Their belief systems cross-pollinate, and the loose cluster of followers clots into a cult. When Bruno awakes and begins making gnomic pronouncements, his followers, the titular Brunists, interpret his mumbling to foretell a looming rapture.

A book as sprawling and multifaceted as this cannot be said to have a proper protagonist; or, as the novelist Brian Evenson has pointed out, the town of West Condon is the protagonist. But just as The Wire refracts our outrage at Baltimore’s corruption through Jimmy McNulty, the reader sees West Condon through Justin “Tiger” Miller, who callously deceives the Brunists in order to infiltrate their ranks. Miller, a former local basketball star turned newspaper editor, has a mind like Hume and a libido like Hef. For him, journalism, like sex, is all the more fun because its rules are so easily bent:

Once a day, six days a week and sometimes seven, year in, year out, the affairs of West Condon were compressed into a set of conventionally accepted signs and became, in the shape of the West Condon Chronicle, what most folks in town thought of as life, or history. . . . That its publisher and editor, Justin Miller, sometimes thought of himself as in the entertainment business and viewed his product, based as it was on the technicality of the recordable fact, as a kind of benevolent hoax, probably only helped to make the paper greater.

On the prognosticated Day of Redemption, the Brunists gather atop a knoll nicknamed Cunt Hill, which overlooks the mine. The event has been highly publicized in advance by Miller, and a crowd forms to watch. A group of drunks set up concession stands and hawk tickets to the event, transforming a figurative media circus into a literal one. It begins to rain, and the cult’s inevitable clash with the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Baptist townsfolk arrives, but the apocalypse does not. “The Powers of Darkness had stormed the holy Mount,” rhapsodizes Miller, “throwing the Sons of Light into dungeons or dispersion, and so there were none there to whom God might, in proper glory, come.”

The Brunists splinter. Signs shift and waver. Light — a holy symbol for the cult — takes on different meanings for different leaders. Clara Collins, the preacher’s widow, begins baptizing her followers in the light of a miner’s headlamp. The hellfire-spitting preacher Abner Baxter prefers baptisms by firelight. For the scientological Elaine Norton, who moves with her husband out to California, holy light is the glow of a television. The Brunists adapt and spread, territory is divided, bishops named. Thus, Coover implies, forms the great feedback loop of the world: tragedy transmuted into myth, myth into belief, belief into religion, religion into division, division into violence, and violence into further tragedy.

Despite the novel’s noisy polyvocality, its message comes through clearly. Near the end of the book, though, one can feel the tenor bending weirdly, as if Coover is smoothing the reader’s transition into the more experimental works to follow: The Origin concludes with a long, rambly joke about Judgment Day, in which heaven becomes so bureaucratically bogged down in processing the billions of new arrivals that God quits.

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lives in British Columbia and New York City. He is writing a book of essays about trails, due out next year from Simon & Schuster.

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