Sunday, 19 February 2012

American Savior, by Roland Merullo

What Would Jesus Do?

This book’s a little different. In American Savior, a small town newspaper investigate a local man who’s apparently been healing terminally ill or injured people. It turns out that he’s Jesus Christ - or claims to be - and wants to run for president of the United States of America. Building an unusual campaign team - containing some of the staff of the newspaper - he runs as an independent against Democrat and Republican tickets outraged at the two party system being upset, and puzzled as to his popularity, especially as he is officially running on a platform of “kindness and goodness”. The story goes up to and beyond election day, and who gets to take the seat in the Oval Office.

The narrator is the only significant flaw in this story. In the first quarter of the book, the journalist Russ Thomas wisecracks his way through encounters with other people, including his girlfriend. The jokes come a little too frequently and grow wearying during the slow start. Thankfully, they knock off when Jesus forms a campaign team and the real part of the novel, the presidential campaign gets underway.

Vote Jesus Christ

Another gripe. It’s also annoyingly clunky, or contrived, how one character appears near the start, then reappears near the end, of the story. Also, on reflection, this part is implausible, even if it based on a caricature of several notorious people from America’s recent history.

But apart from those grudges, the plot moved along at a fair pace and, yes, was plausible. It helps that the whole US presidential election campaign is one big, ridiculous, frenzied, faith over substance, hyped, sound-bite, media-obsessed circus, that in this case Jesus uses (or exploits) well. Had to exploit, as if you don’t, then you aren’t a contender. Some readers, perhaps more cynical observers of the American political system, may find it less credible, thinking that there’s no way he’d even get on the ballot due to the machinations of the two main parties, or that a small team would be overwhelmed with the demands of a media-centric campaign (which they are) and could not cope. I thought it was on the right side of credible, in this respect. At the time of writing this review, Rick Santorum is riding high in polling; despite his threadbare operation, he managed to win Iowa, the first caucus in the 2012 Republican Party nomination process. So, and also remembering Ross Perot, a third party candidate with a relatively small team can get significant media attention.

And one of the (many) themes running through the book is that of the authenticity and credibility of the candidate. This is well anticipated; the novel was written before the last presidential election and the subsequent “birther” movement which queried the nationality of President Barack Obama. The author handles this - inevitable - issue well, especially when the candidate is questioned over whether he was the real Jesus or a real American, and whether his back history was plausible.

The author doesn’t duck the key American political issues which the main candidates face, such as social security, sex outside marriage, and abortion. Kudos for the well-thought out way in which that latter, most polarising of issues, was handled by Jesus / the author, with no cop-out. And Kudos for considering how people, the media, the candidate themselves would react and deal with knockbacks, such as a slip of the tongue (e.g. “I have more woman in me”, not the kind of statement to be received well by a more traditional, testosterone oriented demographic of the population).

I quite like how the team move across several locations in America. The story doesn’t stay just on the (relatively) liberal coasts, or in the midwest heartland, but moves around many states. Jesus does many of the things presidential candidates do. He goes to church (which, if you think about it, is a bit meta) in one of the more unpleasant scenes, in the midwest. He hangs out with media stars, doing things such as surfing for good media coverage. He draws crowds wherever he goes.

But, unconventionally, he uses the powers that you’d expect the son of God to have. Journalists who follow him into the desert suffer a car breakdown (their fate is left unwritten, but this appears to be the work of a vengeful God). People are healed (perhaps). And, hmmm, then there’s the very ending...

That ending? Well, there’s several. The main one isn’t a total surprise as, oddly, it’s flagged up earlier in the book. The final ending; a little better, and the political aspects of the epilogue seem quite plausible.

A good read? Yes. Even open-minded Christians would find a lot to enjoy, and ponder, in this. The Jesus character isn’t ridiculed by the author - in fact, the opposite - so it’s difficult to level a charge of blasphemy against this novel. Christians, agnostics and even some aetheists (okay, perhaps not Mr Dawkins) would find themselves rooting for Jesus as president. And the novel ends cleanly; there’s no tiresome hanging threads leaving open the “possibility” of a sequel.

At the core of American Savior is belief. Elections depend on belief; which candidate do you believe will, if they win, provide the things you want. But this book adds another layer of belief; would people believe that Jesus would return to Earth - to run as a candidate for president of the USA. The book could have done with some heavier editing, and removal of the narrators ego, in the first quarter - but get past that and it’s fun; I went through the book in one day. The author has thought hard, about the issues that such a candidate would face, and how he’d deal with them to stay a plausible candidate. Recommended for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and floating voter alike, and unalike.

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