Thursday, May 28, 2009

Books: The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover

I saw Coover’s name for the first time recently, when reading a lengthy New Yorker article on the passing of my favorite author, David Foster Wallace. The article’s author paired Coover with another of my favorites, John Barth, to illustrate a point (calling them both “postmodern trick[sters],” so of course I immediately added Coover to my reading list, choosing The Origin of the Brunists because it was his first novel. I found the Brunists much more like Oakley Hall’s Warlock than anything by Barth, though. In this book at least, Coover isn’t a trickster at all; he tells us a great story about a small town, and lays it out in a surprisingly clear, direct way. His writing is highly intelligent without ever engaging in the literary gamesmanship of Barth or the totemic Pynchon.

Hall’s book is a Western and Coover’s is not, but it is equally American, the story of a mining town struck by disaster that is quickly stormed by religious fanaticism. An explosion in the mine kills 97 out of 98 workers. The only survivor, Giovanni Bruno, was an inscrutable introvert prior to the explosion, which only makes him more sickly and strange. He is, nevertheless, proclaimed a prophet-messiah by a number of different fanatic female constituents—one stranger in the town who communicates with a spirit called Domiron in what she calls “the seventh aspect” via ESP, one Christian woman, the widow of a preacher-miner who dies in the same explosion, a telltale, half-scrawled note in his hand foreboding something of import on the 8th, and Bruno’s possibly half-wit sister, a winsome beauty who doesn’t speak much and is easily convinced by these two stronger women. A few other lonely widows, impressionable teenagers, and kooky spiritualist men join the small group, meeting in weekly circles around Bruno’s bed, and then on the hill near the mine, using specious numerology to calculate the impending end of the world.

Coover’s own voice of amused reason manifests in Justin “Tiger” Miller, the owner and, it seems, sole generator, of the town’s newspaper. Miller was a high school basketball star, and left the town after graduation to accomplish big things in the world; failing to accomplish them, he has come back, bought the paper, and lives the shambly life of a journalist—drinking, womanizing, and working all night to put a daily paper to bed. Miller joins the cult for a while, not believing in any of it, of course, but hoping to get the story and to bed Bruno’s lovely sister while he’s at it. He succeeds in getting the story—in fact, publishes so much material on the Brunists (which he first calls them, and they then begin to call themselves) that the town fractures into three angry factions: the Brunists and their supporters, the non-Brunist Christians, led by a raging minister who whips his many children in secret, including in that area between the legs where no child out of diapers should be touched, and the “Common Sense Committee,” a group of “concerned citizens,” if you will—the mayor, the banker, and the thick-necks—who mean to put a stop to this embarrassing madness. Meanwhile, the town is also beset by a series of ominous pranks—a pile of poop in the pulpit of the church, a dog fed ground glass, a widow’s house set on fire—all with the signature of “The Black Hand.” These crimes are perpetrated by two of the angry minister’s children, the older of which has stolen a charred, black hand from the mine explosion, but the frenzied residents interpret them as acts of the devil.

In the end, the Brunists cannot be contained—in fact, the fever pitch increases until the chosen night, when they join at the top of the hill, and all of the town comes out to watch them. Because of Miller, the story has gone national, and groups of Brunists around the world ascend hilltops as well. Foreign press floods the small town. A thunderstorm comes. There is a stampede, a few injuries, one death. Miller is trampled, beaten, and then trampled again. The end of the world does not come. Miller does not die (or, if he seems to, he is resurrected, coming back to consciousness in a hospital bed. As in all post-modern novels, the writer, certainly, is exploiter and redeemer, revelator and everyman, holder of the trump card: reason plus fancy.

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