Wednesday, December 11, 2013
another oldie: *The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
Grove Press, 2000
originally published 1966
"...there is a logic to everything ...even the irrational..."
I loved this book. I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until March, so close on the heels of finishing the original novel, but well, I suppose I don't have much of a choice in the matter. As the book blurb on the back cover notes, The Origin of the Brunists won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel, but imho, it certainly doesn't read like a first novel.
At its heart, the book is an account of the rise of a religious cult and the resulting religious fervor coming on the heels of a terrible mine disaster, but really, that statement is way too simplistic. It begins with a prologue as the people in the cult, known as the Brunists, have gathered the day before the second coming on a hill they've named the Mount of Redemption. A terrible event occurs, one that goes on to find its way into the very legends, myths and art of the religion. This part is related by a new convert, who seems slightly confused. The rest of the novel reveals what happened leading up to that event and beyond, beginning with the disaster at the mine, an event which will ultimately leave an entire town and several lives in chaos.
The Brunists take their name from a coal miner named Giovanni Bruno, who just prior to the disaster has been getting a lot of crap from fellow workers to the point of making him cry. Another victim of hazing is a new guy who is saved by a miner named Oxford Clemens (his friends call him Ferd), and off the two of them go to have a quiet smoke. Lighting up sets off an explosion; in the confusion down below, a group of miners got lost and then barricaded themselves to wait for help. Bruno is with them, but off on his own; the others die, and Bruno is saved, although pretty damaged by the carbon monoxide. Another miner, the Reverend Ely Collins of the Church of the Nazarene, is also killed, but had written a note to his wife Clara and daughter Elaine that Clara takes as a message that reveals the day of the second coming. She also hears that Ely reportedly saw a white bird, "like a dove," in the mine just before the explosion. Bruno is in a coma, but when he wakes up (still damaged), he mutters some strange words about a white bird and a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the mine. While Clara is convinced that Ely was sending her some kind of message about "God's final judgment," another person is concerned that she never received advanced warning about the disaster from her guide Domiron, who allowed her to communicate with "higher forces." This is Elaine Norton, a substitute teacher who has been kicked out of a few towns after townspeople started noticing her strange preoccupation with teenaged boys. Elaine has notebooks dating back years filled with Domiron's communications; now she believes that they were forced to leave their last town for a specific purpose. She becomes involved with Clara, Bruno and Bruno's sister Marcella, as do a few other of Clara's friends and a lawyer who's into numerology named Ralph Himebaugh -- who become the founding members of this new religion. Chronicling it all is Justin Miller, a former hometown athlete who'd been brought back to the town to run the newspaper. Justin tends to see everything as "a game," and while researching the Brunist story that he knows is going to make him a lot of money, he falls for Marcella and comes up with a plan to "rescue" her. The new Nazarene reverend Abner Baxter is suspicious of the Brunists and gets things stirred up; the town banker enlists the help of some of the disaster survivors to form a Common Sense Committee in the wake of rumors of the mine closing to try to keep a lid on things so that the Brunists don't drive away potential interest or business for West Condon's future. All of these people and their stories (including Baxter's kids who form their own group called The Black Hand) come together at the Mount of Redemption, coming full circle back to the beginning of the novel, and then a little beyond.
With lots of humor interspersed throughout the book, this is one of the craziest novels I've ever read. Aside from the new religion, which imho isn't the real focus of this book but rather the centerpiece around which the characters react, the author really gets into small-town life and minds, the workings of power and politics, and how seemingly "normal" people can get caught up in their own various forms of madness and mania. I'd say it's a novel about the people of West Condon much more than anything else. The author is a genius when it comes to the characters -- and it's really incredibly tough to believe that this was Mr. Coover's first novel. It does take some time and attention to get through, not because it's difficult to read, but because the author so carefully and slowly develops the frenzy that occurs not just among the Brunists, but the craziness occurring throughout the entire town. It also shows that no matter what sort of community these people find themselves in, even in "A community of good will," everything eventually comes down to matters of self interest -- a very non-idealistic view that makes this book well worth reading. Definitely recommended.