The Mad Metaphysician
By Don Kurtz
Cool of the Morning. 269 pp. Paperback; $15.95
Don Kurtz's first novel, South of the Big Four, was a heartbreaking saga of Indiana farmers working marginal land, a maddening failed love story and a slow-building tragedy of quiet majesty. One could wish for a world in which such books made a splash; as it was, you just held your breath and hoped the guy survived to write more.
Twelve years later, Kurtz has. In Churchgoers, his second novel, he takes on visionary experiences beyond the usual confines of conventional religion and science. As the book opens, Dr. Mitchell Chandler, a world renowned biochemist and the discoverer of the "Lazarus gene," controlling the regeneration of limbs in salamanders, finds himself in an unaccountably altered state. Though the condition is vague -- "a chill along his spine," a bit of d¿j¿ vu and a seemingly routine fainting spell -- it will undo his tidy scientific world soon enough.
A sort of research rock star, Chandler has been endowed with a university department chair and shiny new lab in his hometown in the Midwest. The Lazarus gene set-up screams Michael Crichton, but we quickly learn that the gene's expression in mammals is a dry hole: "A decade's work dismissed," the hyper-ambitious Chandler reflects blithely. "But that no longer mattered." Chandler has stumbled into something far more monumental: What started as a chill along his spine has progressed from something that seemed manageable with a couple of Tylenols to a capacity to read minds and mystical visions that make everything else, including the kind of science he made his name at, seem trivial.
Afire with the "larger set of data" of his new perceptions, Chandler finds he has little patience for domestic life. Indeed, he is seized by the "sudden realization of how little he really cared for his sons." His altered state bodes ill for his marriage as well: "Within a steadily deepening moment, only two questions seemed salient: who was this thin woman in leotards and why did she care?" The only one in the house who seems to understand him is Max, the dog, who, in a clumsy mingling of points of view, reflects approvingly that "the tall one was finally awake."
Meanwhile, the staid and fading Campus Church has rented space to a charismatic ministry run by Randy Overmeyer, a cold-blooded megalomaniac with a knack for spotting the holes in people's souls and stuffing them with Jesus. Chandler's expanded consciousness leads him into a stalker-type passion for Pastor Randy's wife. He moves out of his house, lives in his car, and fulminates, often incoherently, about the limitations of the scientific method and the sudden plasticity of his world. On one careening walk, he pauses significantly before a house; later, we learn that Chandler had "known instantly" of a death there. This belated disclosure is typical of the book's odd, almost perverse narrative choices. We lurch from Revelation to Insight without ever seeing the reality of building tension that is the substance of a good novel.
Chandler's hubris sustains him far into his burgeoning insanity, and there is a morbid fascination in watching his Lear-like fall from scientific royalty. By the time Pastor Randy expels Chandler's demons, the reader is almost ready to concede that being born again in such humiliating fashion might be a step up from his pseudo-messianic madness.
Yet we hardly care. Qualities of ambition and obsession, perverse obstinacy and emotional cluelessness, which were almost noble in the embattled farmers in South of the Big Four, here seem merely pathological. When the pastor's wife tells her husband, late in the book, "You're crazy. . . . You're crazy and selfish and wrong," the reader is just grateful that somebody finally said it. Unfortunately, that confrontation melts improbably into rough sex; and she eventually embraces motherhood as her own religion.
The novel's epigraph is from J.A. Symonds: "I wondered why, since I had gone so deep, I had seen nothing of the love of God, but only His relentlessness." Kurtz's characters are clearly supposed to have gone deep, but in a world where the only metaphysical possibilities are tenure-shattering psychosis, a Senses Alive! class offered at the moribund local church, and the worst of charismatic con Christianity, it is little wonder that love never shows up.
This has the feel of an experimental novel that never quite came together. Like the farmers in South of the Big Four, Kurtz's sweat credit is good, and we are inclined to let him run up the bill in Churchgoers long after it becomes obvious that he won't be able to cover it. But there are limits to good will. *
Tim Farrington's latest novel is "The Monk Upstairs."