Saturday, December 30, 2017

Robert Coover's "The Origin of the Brunists": Book Review

The Origin of Brunists (ebook) by Robert Coover ...
I'd always relegated Robert Coover to the ranks of John Barth and Donald Barthelme, as briefly influential arch peddlers of irony, lust, and erudition to the counterculture and its academic cheerleaders. But I remembered, all the way back to high school, finding in a remaindered anthology of writers recommending titles that'd fallen through the shelves by the late 70s. Among them was a take on religious fanaticism in a coal-mining burg somewhere between the East and the Midwest.

Finding this as an e-book from my library, despite the nearly 600 pages, I sampled the start and signed on. Fifty-plus years after it appeared in 1966, parts of it hold up, and some does not. The louche {lad}y-hound Justin Miller turns into the anti-hero who runs the West Condon newspaper and investigates and infiltrates the cult he names the Brunists after their founder. He's not monikered Giordano, but Giovanni Bruno's bent clearly aligns with the heretics and fringe criers out of visions.

After a convincingly depicted, richly detailed immersion into the mines and their miners, and the disaster taking ninety-seven of them away, the novel settles in for a long, long stretch. Layered, we get to know by slow accretion the stratified levels of class, mentality, and promiscuity which occupy the inhabitants of the dismal town. Coover gradually introduces a large cast of characters, who take up sides for and mostly against the Brunists who gather to concoct their odd doctrines and incantations. Coover channels the New Age rants of Eleanor Norton, the fundamentalist counter from the Baxters, and the mathematically obsessed theories of the local lawyer. These overlap as Miller uses the circle of First Followers to pursue yet another dame, the sultry sister of Giovanni, Marcella.

Familiar scenes distort. A high school basketball match seen as if an occult ritual, or a chess match. A Joycean parody of a newspaperman's turn to the bottle if not the broads. Prose that early on breaks into fragments as the disaster below gets rendered into not sentences but panic, as exploded dialogue.

However, halfway on, Coover cannot resist the type of mockery that so many of his peers indulged in. As if abandoned ramblings from Mark Twain's satires on heavenly kitsch and biblical fables, we get a Borscht Belt shtick for the remainder of the plot, on and off stand-up riffs on the Last Judgment. A little goes a long way. It's as if Coover tired of sustaining the tension he'd built up, and he had to deflate his study of belief and its discontents to give more room for louche Lotharios and sullen sluts.

We get it. The hillbillies and the Babbitts, hypocrites and the defeated mobs. We don't need so many. This novel could have lost a considerable chunk and streamlined some of the too-easy targets and heavy breathing couplings out of John Updike, managed just fine. But it's from the Sixties, granted. Four-letter words shocked more in respectable print then, and the effect, as with these worn-out epithets, has dulled over the intervening half-century as what was low-class banter turns normal chat.

This all ends, without quite giving away the ending, in a Day of the Locust type of showdown. Coover, we realize as the novel lopes along and refuses closure, integrates a spin on Judas, Jesus, and the apostles, before and after the Resurrection. Some of this stays clever, but West Condon's human frailty and its woebegone Winesburg, Ohio-meets Main Street cast of misfits and opportunists resists the novel's final pages. No wonder, nearly five decades on, we find a sequel, twice as long as this. (Amazon US 11/17/17; excerpt to Spectrum Culture favorite books read by staff in 2017 as my pick)

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