Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Pete was ready to believe in miracles. June hadn’t left their bed since Tuesday, but he was the one sick of everything: sick of the pills and drips and ointments with names he couldn’t pronounce, sick of the sympathetic phone calls and e-mails that always ended with Thinking of You, tired of the stupid pamphlets people left behind with titles like Curing Cancer With Classical Music and The Vegan Cancer Diet. They were both barely forty years old but the house looked like it belonged to a couple twice their age, a clustered graveyard of useless things: empty medicine bottles, collapsible walkers and ergonomic canes, a fold-up wheelchair, green oxygen tanks, get well cards, shiny balloons, stuffed bears, stuffed bunny rabbits, stuffed birds, a stuffed octopus that said, ‘I’ve got plenty of arms to hold you!’ when you pressed the right tentacle, scented candles, gift baskets, plastic vases full of roses or daisies or fruit, anonymous casseroles and bundt cakes. Oh God, Pete thought, the fucking casseroles. Since the dawn of time, this is how the middle-aged women of Wisconsin fought cancer: they dumped shitty macaroni and cheese in an aluminum tub and left it on your kitchen table when you weren’t looking.
This novel—an assemblage of short narratives from various perspectives, a poem, and e-mails—is the sequel to Nazareth, North Dakota, and continues a re-imagining of the events, messages, and forms of the New Testament in a distinctly modern—and here primarily Midwestern—milieu. We have fishermen and storms, a trail with the devil out in the badlands, and the miraculous curing of cancer and Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but all of this is rendered in our vernacular, the setting and symbols recognizably those of our world, from the Saul figure, the persecutor, typing up digital epistles on how “The only thing more dangerous to America than these camouflaged hicks running around the woods with their AK-47s and hunting knives are the ones who say they’re doing it because they’re on a mission from God” to this description of the Wedding at Cana:
It’s right around midnight when the booze runs out. There’s always that scary window at a party when folks are drunk enough to pick fights but not drunk enough to do everyone else a favor and just pass out. I’ve sat through enough wedding receptions to know they turn into a wake the minute something runs out: wine, food, sober guys to dance with, toilet paper in the women’s bathroom. Maybe that’s why the bride and groom always leave early. One minute there’s this sea of hopeful faces dancing to Justin Timberlake, and the next minute the place seems darker and the people left are yawning and seem a lot less interesting. Suddenly there are empty tables piled with dirty dishes and the DJ is playing Every Rose Has Its Thorns.
Soon enough, a lake gets turned into wine because the mother of this book’s Christ, Sam Davidson, wants to get drunker. That same mother will later drunkenly vent her rage against God after Judd—the Judas character—fingers Sam to federal agents by telling him he’ll be wearing a KISS T-shirt. “He figured Sam would get some prison, maybe even a slap on the wrist; he’d be out before Judd harvested his first crop. The whole thing was political anyway, just more of the same election-year theatrics: there would be some key photo-ops of agents bringing in bad guys, and then a couple weeks later everyone would forget about it—that is, until the next time someone needed votes. All textbook.” But nothing is textbook here, except the rudiments of the story, and even those are imagined fresh, such that, for instance, the Vision conveyed by Revelation is spoken by a man brought back from the dead. “I love you God,” he says, “but you make me want to shoot up / Resurrection is your sickest joke.”
In short, what Zurhellen manages to do in these pages is a kind of resurrection, infusing stories largely assumed to be familiar and thus dismissed with a fresh edge, “translation” not in the sense of figuring out that a given Koine term means “poverty” but showing us what that, in term, means: “When you drive up to Watford City for meetings each week, you always stop at the Kum n’ Go to fill up and play a couple scratchers, hoping for the best, but the most you’ve won so far is just another scratcher,” for instance.
Reading this funny, deliciously written, and thought-provoking book, I found myself thinking of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig and their project to translate the Hebrew Bible into German, predicated on the notion that said scripture had become, in Rosenzweig’s term, poisonous to the degree that it was removed from orality and life. Uncomprehending respect and unthinking familiarity were the great threats to the Bible, these thinkers argued. The alternative would be a contemporary translation which would convey that Buberian Erlebnis, that inner and affective experience, that sense of immediate and authentic encounter.
Zurhellen, it seems to me, has done that, to an extent. He gives us voices that speak to us, that make us see, not through a mirror darkly, but face to face. “Forget everything you know about miracles,” says Zurhellen’s messiah, “I can raise the dead, but I can’t make you love me. I can walk on water, but these days all you’ve got to do is click on YouTube to see the impossible. We live in a world of too many miracles. We live in a world where people truly believe they can cheat death if they could just find the money to afford the right vitamin or surgical procedure.” Dig that twist from metaphysics to ethics, from expectations of the otherworldly to the Apostolic mission of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. Truly this is word made living, and certainly an earthy and exciting read.
Official Tommy Zurhellen Web Site
Official Atticus Books Web Site