Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

Written in 1966, way before he became a proponent of non-linear “hypertext” literature, Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists is an excellent narrative fiction detailing the rise of a religious cult in the aftermath of a coal mine disaster. There is a certain mastery of narrative in this first novel, realistically told, as Coover explores the motivations of several disparate characters over 500-plus pages.

The quiet lynchpin of the novel is one Giovanni Bruno, an Italian-American miner, rather dim and shiftless, and (like his near namesake) a bit of an apostate from the local Catholic church. The early chapters effectively portray the crude humor and dangerousness of the miners world. When one Oxford “Ferd” Clemens saves his young new partner from a sexually humiliating hazing deep in the mines, they slip into a side room to share a smoke, unaware of the deadly accumulation of noxious gases awaiting only the spark of a match to send the mine and 98 of its workers to the appropriately titled “kingdom come”.

By some random miracle, Bruno has sequestered himself in a tight spot, avoiding the death by asphyxiation that kills several co-workers. Overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, he lingers in a coma for weeks before awakening to utter a very few cryptic words. By the time he awakens, there is an intimation of religious revival in the air, occasioned by a short enigmatic note left by another miner, the Reverend Ely Collins, to his wife. Rumors have also been circulated about a mystical white bird seen in the mine just before the disaster.

It is at this point that several characters, including former local golden boy, sexual conquistador, and newspaper owner “Tiger” Miller and Mrs. Eleanor Norton, a mystagogue with an unhealthy interest in teenage boys who receives signals from a transdimensional character named Domiron, descend upon Bruno and the widow Collins. With Norton as the catalyst, that most American of institutions - the apocalyptic cult - begins to form around Bruno and the “martyred” Reverend Collins. Against the backdrop of economic depression in the town of West Condon, and increasing suspicion of the cult by the Nazarene preacher Abner Baxter and local big wheel Ted Cavanaugh, the elements of the drama come together like cogs in a wheel, moving inexorably towards a explosive climax on The Hill of Redemption, formerly a makeout point near the mine known by the cognocenti as Cunt Hill.

Coover constructs the novel intricately and with fine and humane characterizations, although once can see the continued fascination with the male organ that first appeared in his first collection of stories, Pricksongs and Descants, and which has apparently continued in his later works. The experimentalism for which Coover is known, while present in this novel in a series of gnomic (and ignorable) italicized sections, do not interfere with the narrative. Humor and the pathos of shattered dreams and human gullibility imbue this novel with a distinctly timeless realism.

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