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Book Review

Jesus running for president? A divine novelty in 'American Savior'

Author Roland Merullo has some fun in his atypical political novel. Author Roland Merullo has some fun in his atypical political novel. (Amanda S. Merullo)
By Judy Budz
October 9, 2008
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American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics
By Roland Merullo, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 312 pp., $24.95

In Roland Merullo's new novel, "American Savior," Jesus returns to earth to run for president of the United States. The notion is funny, especially given the sometimes vitriolic nature of the 2008 political season. Merullo's hero promises to revolutionize American campaigning with an inspiring combination of honesty, love, and public-relations savvy. Who would not want to vote for a "tattooed guy with the magic touch" who claims to be the "Son of Man"?

We're told that this candidate is "nothing like the Jesus you always had in your imagination." He prefers to be called "Hay-Zeus" and not "Lord." Disdaining public displays of godlike power, he confirms his identity to a ragtag group of followers through a series of private miracles. In one, he restores life to a toddler who has fallen from a third-story fire escape. In another, his touch heals a dying girl, and her grateful super-rich parents bankroll his campaign.

The novel's narrator, Russ, is initially cynical in the face of these events. A TV reporter in "the troubled city of West Zenith," Mass., he does not believe in miracles, but Jesus' charisma and his inside knowledge of Russ's most private behavior are convincing. Russ abruptly quits his job to join the Divinity Party campaign, and Jesus names him chief of candidate security. He is responsible for "keeping God alive." This duty expands exponentially when Jesus also asks him to keep a journal about the campaign. This journal becomes the novel, which becomes Russ's version of a 21st-century New Testament.

Clearly this is not a typical political novel. There is no billionaire cabal, no terrorist, and no Manchurian candidate. Instead, Jesus' opponents are stick figures. The Republican is a woman, a "hardass senator from Idaho" married to a "famous TV preacher" who exerts huge influence among far-right Christian conservatives. The Democrat, while "only a colonel," is a war hero who made his considerable fortune by inventing an insecticide that kills bugs and not people. John McCain meets Al Gore.

Jesus is irresistible. He is a "renaissance man," a rodeo bull rider, a West Coast surfer, an Elvis imitator. He loves doughnuts and feeds his staff Indian food. As his campaign travels from small town to small town, children flock to him because he is a "combination of Barney, an Action-Figure, and the lead singer from the Wiggles." Demonstrators and doubters from the right and the left, red states and blue, fall to their knees in his presence. Occasionally one faints. His choice of a running mate is a sweet surprise that will not be spoiled here.

With a faultless candidate and foolish opponents, there is not much call for careful political strategizing. To his campaign staff of disciples, Jesus' moves often seem impulsive, but the candidate's instincts are perfect. His speeches are generalizations arguing that foreign policy must be founded on "moral rather than strategic imperatives." As president, he promises to apply the principle of the golden rule and to end greed and stupidity. He will establish a national conference on abortion.

In the throes of the campaign, the staff asks Jesus to tell them if he will win; after all, he knows what is to come. Jesus explains that he has chosen to be human in this world and to "let there be gaps" in his knowledge. But given the obvious parallels between the novel's events and the biblical story, the campaign's ending is never really in doubt. We are warned fairly early to expect a familiar conclusion.

Some of the book's most effective moments occur when Jesus and his staff appear with radio talk-show hosts and TV pundits. During a final round of interviews, the deputy chief of security, a stereotypical rough-talking biker, appears on "The Lenny Queen Show." He terrifies the "visibly shaken" host with a jabbing finger and an incoherent threat against anyone who dares to question Jesus' sexual preferences.

These interviews are the funny bone of the novel, balancing the occasionally repetitive quality of Jesus' pronouncements. In fact, the book's gentle satire effectively underscores Merullo's criticism of 21st-century behavior and beliefs. To some readers, the book may end too soon, before we see what happens to a country delivered into a world in which the Divinity Party platform rules the day.

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.

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