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FICTION

A Heavenly Candidate

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 24, 2008

AMERICAN SAVIOR

A Novel of Divine Politics

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By Roland Merullo

Algonquin. 312 pp. $24.95

Given the fawning coverage of Barack Obama during this election season, a story about Jesus Christ coming back to Earth and running for president seems almost redundant. But American Savior is blessed with enough gentle humor to keep this "novel of divine politics" fresh and even a little inspiring. The author, Roland Merullo, is developing something of a specialty in comic fiction with religious overtones or, if you prefer, religious fiction with comic overtones. In a previous novel, Breakfast with Buddha, a publishing executive drives across America with a Mongolian monk; enlightenment ensues. And before that, Merullo published Golfing with God, about a golf pro in heaven trying to pull the Big Guy's game out of a slump.

The set-up for American Savior sounds like the answer to a satirist's prayer, but the story never rips into our political system with the kind of bitterness you might expect. The narrator, Russ Thomas, is an affable TV reporter for a local station in western Massachusetts. He opens the novel by telling us, "My whole way of looking at life was turned upside down." He knows we'll be skeptical (he was skeptical at first, too), but he goes on to tell us about the man who called himself Jesus and ran for president of the United States.

It all starts after Russ covers a few local miracles for the news. He meets someone at a coffee shop who he assumes is a crackpot. Jesus wants Russ and his girlfriend to quit their jobs and join his campaign for the presidency. "I'm going to do things differently this time," he explains. "Last time I wasn't entirely happy with the way it worked out. To be frank, it took hundreds of years for what I did to have much impact on the world, and by then things were so muddled. . . . Well, you people have never really recovered. Look at the Middle East."

After considerable soul-searching, Russ is convinced -- sort of -- that this man is the Son of God. He joins the budding presidential campaign and brings along a ragtag group of friends and relatives, including his Roman Catholic mother and his Jewish father, who's sick and tired of all these Jesus freaks but, heck, family is family. Although they know no more about winning a national election than those fishermen knew about saving humanity 2,000 years ago, they have faith. They'll need it: November is just five months away. An adviser warns Jesus: "You're going to be seen as a Jesus-Come-Lately, if you want the harsh truth."

Much of the light comedy here arises from Jesus's straight-faced goodness amid the grimy mechanics of campaigning, polling and dealing with the media. When asked about the Divine Party's platform, Jesus tells his staff, "I'm running on the beatitudes."

"They'll hammer you on national defense."

"It would not be the first time," Jesus says.

If you know the Gospels, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Jesus is a pretty savvy campaigner. The novel follows the broad outlines of the Greatest Story Ever Told but with more TV commentary. Multitudes attend Jesus's announcement rally. He arrives in a black Hummer, guarded by biker-gangsters. "You are a nation in grave spiritual danger," he tells 60,000 people -- voters, protesters and fanatics. "I cannot say I will cut your taxes and raise your salaries. What I can say is that you will have a nation based on kindness and goodness." The crowd goes wild: "Jee-zus! Jee-zus! JEE-ZUS!"

Merullo spends most of his satiric capital on the news media, including appearances by thinly disguised commentators you won't have any trouble recognizing, like "Jim Wearer," "Lenny Queen" and a particularly vicious beauty named Anne Canter. (On "Meet the Media," George Bill quotes from the New Testament.) The Democratic and Republican candidates aren't quite sure how to respond to this unusual opponent, but their minions quickly go negative. The Washington Times runs a front page photo of Jesus embracing a boy with Down syndrome: "So-called Jesus Candidate Revealed To Be Gay. Former Homosexual Lover Admits to Five-Month Affair." Rather than deny those allegations, Jesus counters with a brilliantly staged stop at the West Edfort rodeo in New Mexico. He's a man's man. The next morning the Amarillo Chronicle cheers: "Candidate Christ Takes Bull By Horns."

Merullo was born and raised a Roman Catholic in Boston, but his recent novels are decidedly ecumenical, with a sparkly touch of New Age spirituality. The Jesus of American Savior should be familiar to liberal Protestants who grew up thinking Jonathan Livingston Seagull was, like, really profound. (Guilty.) His theology is a brand of sweet Christian Gnosticism: "We are locked in a dream," he tells his campaign staff. Through many lives, we learn dominion over the "thought-force." He's hunky and hip and all about tolerance, like a Unitarian porn star. And please, don't call him "Lord"; he hates that. "For the record," he says, "I never came to be worshipped, not the first time and not this time. I came to be emulated." The only people Jesus is really against, in fact, are evangelical Christians and conservative politicians, who, if they read this novel, will have to keep turning the other cheek again and again.

It's fun to imagine what would happen if a noble candidate threw caution to the wind and ran on a platform of universal kindness that appealed to our higher nature. Unfortunately, this Jesus's statements never strike the startling, iconoclastic note we hear in the Gospels. Instead, American Savior is at its best when Russ is wrestling with his conscience, trying to fathom how the election experience changed him, blessed him. Merullo knows what he's talking about. Before he started writing novels, he was a carpenter. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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