7-7-[70]: ARMAGEDDON


a very small place

A Review of Robert Coover's

The Brunist Day of Wrath

JR Foley

"So much happens in this country that no one ever hears about."

—Carl Dean "Pach'" Palmers, The Brunist Day of Wrath

     The Brunist Day of Wrath (Dzanc Books, Ann Arbor, MI, 2014, 1,005 pages) is for any reader who loves to sink into a rich, funny, horrifying, tumultuous novel. (Think Dickens or George Eliot, or Stendhal or Roger Martin du Gard, or Mann or Musil.) It's so good I really don't want to spoil a thing about it, but such exuberant reluctance will not intrigue new readers.

     Robert Coover published The Origin of the Brunists in 1966 to rave reviews and the William Faulkner Award for Best First Novel. He has said many times that in writing it he was paying dues to Zolaesque naturalism. It creates a coalmining town, West Condon, which suffers a mine disaster killing 98, devastating their families and, by ripple effects, following complete shutdown of the mine, the rest of the town.

     One miner survives, however, an introverted, even slow-witted Giovanni Bruno, whose dead partner, Ely Collins, was a lay preacher who feared he was being punished by God for not quitting regular work to preach full-time. Collins recently told his wife of sometimes seeing a bird in the mine, "like a dove," which may have been a gas-induced hallucination but also might have been real. He has also left behind an unfinished note to his wife which concludes: "We will stand together before the Lord the 8th of." As he dies he proclaims to his fellow trapped miners, including Bruno, that he can see the white bird — an ancient symbol of the Holy Spirit — and "He's gonna take care of us." Ely's wife Clara, baffled and faith-challenged by Ely's death and Bruno's survival, persuades herself the event must have a meaning and purpose in God's divine plan. Others, equally distraught by the event, listen eagerly. When the slowly recovering Bruno utters fragments like "the coming ... of ... the light — Sunday — week — the tomb — is its message — Mount of Redemption," Clara and others take them for cryptic prophesies. The local paper, for reasons economic, sardonic, but also intrigued, promotes the growing cult as a new religion.

     Resistance from local businessmen and unconverted religionists both Protestant and Catholic escalates as the news story goes national and attracts great media and political attention. Everything culminates on a day — the "8th" — of the expected end of the world on the mine hill rebaptized the Mount of Redemption. Nonbelievers seeking to exploit the scene commercially converge with media people, state troopers, and the Brunists for the prophesied End which a sudden storm of lightning and thunderous rain provoke into both orgy and brawl. Arrests and vanishings follow and the Brunists, by and large, scatter across the country.

     But Origin ends leaving unfinished business for both the Brunists and the West Condonites. Coover did not set out right away to follow it up, although he was already taking notes. Meanwhile, in novels like The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., The Public Burning, Gerald's Party, John's Wife, Pinocchio in Venice, and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors' Cut, and in many works of short fiction like Pricksongs and Descants, A Night at the Movies, Aesop's Forest, A Child Again, Ghost Town, Noir, and In Bed One Night, he proceeded to explore the nature of narrative by turning inside out not only fairy tales and movie genres but his own short stories and novellas — of which there are many more. All during that time, though, he took voluminous notes and wrote extensive additions to the biographies of the dozens of characters in The Origin of the Brunists, intending to write the second volume of the small place epic as early as the early 1980's; but even newer story-exploits kept supervening. Happily, he kept going and going, and The Brunist Day of Wrath is not an unfinished masterpiece.

Dies irae
Dies illa

[Day of wrath
That {awful} day]

goes the Medieval chant, singing the terrors of the Last Judgment.

     The Brunist Day of Wrath opens five years after Origin when the scattered Brunists return to West Condon for a new prophesied (though ever uncertain) Last Day and Rapture. The action moves chronologically from Easter Sunday, March 29, to the eve of yet another 8th of the month unknown. According to the Gregorian calendar the year is 1970, but not the 1970 of popular history. (One clue is that the entire narrative unrolls in the present tense.) In the late spring of Gregorian 1970 U.S. troops invaded Cambodia from South Vietnam, provoking protests and demonstrations on campuses across America, in the course of which students were shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State University (Ohio) and local police at Jackson State College (Mississippi). In The Brunist Day of Wrath people occasionally refer to a past war and some to a coming war, though where is never mentioned. On the other hand, a cataclysmic war is brewing right there in West Condon, which the Brunists think, hope for, dread will be the Armageddon of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse here and now.)

     To set the scene: the Brunists have taken over an abandoned Presbyterian church camp outside West Condon, which fills with people and trailers from town and from Brunist communities from coast to coast. The camp overlooks the mine hill/Mount of Redemption, on which Clara Collins (now remarried to one of the founding Brunists) wants to build a tabernacle. Not all Brunists, however much they revere Clara, agree: for if the Last Day and the Rapture are coming, building a tabernacle is not just a waste of time but might border on blasphemy.

     This issue is hardly the only one dividing the Brunists. One ex-miner (also ex-union organizer, also ex-Communist) agitates so vociferously for a militant Brunist apocalypse he and his followers get expelled from the camp. They don't go far, though, and in fact leave growing if unspoken sympathizers remaining in the camp. Then there are the real militants, one of his sons and hard-shell bikers he joins up with. And opposing all of them are the town non-Brunists, quarterbacked by the banker, who does not let down the team.

     Setting this scene, however, I have told not a jot or a tittle of what develops in this novel. The major characters run to more than a dozen, the minor actors to dozens and dozens more. So much happens to so many people, at a narrative pace that neither hastens nor delays, I won't bother to summarize the main lines of the plot. Of the climax, sustained over 123 pages of unrelenting, astonishing power, I note only that all the contending parties, each one certain he, she, and they do the will of God, are determined to have it out -- and will not be denied.

     While the classic omniscient narrator of the Zolaesque novel recounts The Origin of the Brunists, the narrator of The Brunist Day of Wrath, begotten by all the narrators of Coover's fictions since 1966, changes style subtly from character to character, point-of-view to point-of-view, as he inhabits and animates each one and speaks in his or her tongue. You can find a taste of this in the sequence "Sitting in the Great Myth of the Rapture", which appears in FlashPøint #16, featuring one major character, Sally Elliott.

     Is it necessary to read The Origin of the Brunists before starting The Brunist Day of Wrath? To get the gist of the first novel's story, no. It all comes out early in Day of Wrath in the brooding memories of its survivors. But to get the full impact of the epic of the Brunists, and the pleasures of their original tale, why deprive yourself?

     Reading a 1,005-page novel is a big commitment, but The Brunist Day of Wrath lends helpful assistance by subdividing chapters into anecdotal segments of one-to-three pages. This made it easy for me to read a few pages a day, nearly every day, over nine months (which is also how, over two years, I read volume I of Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities). Also a great assist is that narrative pace which neither hastens nor delays: it has a lot of story to tell, an epic of a hundred thousand moments, all gathering and moving without hurry or lag toward one all-culminating event. (I did read other books at the same time, too, without ever losing the thread of the Day).

     Let me make an observation of what novels face when they are "about religion" in America, or indeed "about religion in America." My impression, from the media — I have made no survey! — is that religious Americans by and large pray for three things: to think positive, sell used cars, etc., prodigiously, and get to Heaven. If this is accurate, none of them would be the least tempted to read The Brunist Day of Wrath (even with all its sex and violence) -- if it came to their attention they'd probably call down God's wrath upon it! -- despite the theoretic possibility that they are the ones who might get the most out of it. I suspect many Christians who do read The Brunist Day of Wrath, and who are neither fundamentalist nor evangelical, let alone millenarian, will likely think that's Them, not Us. To the extent we extrapolate beyond the covers of a work of art, though, the point is that these Them are actually very much part of Us, certainly in America; and what they do reveals a lot about America that Us non-Brunists might not care to face.

     Irreligious readers, on the contrary, are likely to think same old same old, figure the book, if not boring (because it's "about religion"), has nothing to tell them they haven't already thought, and so forth. For instance, some reviews of the book call it "a scathing indictment of fundamentalism." Frankly, if someone told me -- very eagerly -- there's this 1,002-page "scathing indictment of fundamentalism," I'd likely think (like my "irreligious reader"): I don't need to read a 1,005-page book to convince myself that fundamentalism is bad for you.

     But The Brunist Day of Wrath is much less an indictment of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, millenarianism than an exploration of them: fascinated, horrified, yet empathetic with their devotees. So much more is going on here.

     Apart from religious or irreligious, lovers of writing will likely read The Brunist Day of Wrath for the sheer pleasure of reading it. What more to say?

     Do I have any little critical cavil to make regarding The Brunist Day of Wrath? Only the same I might regarding Ulysses or A la recherche du temps perdu — that there isn't even more of it.

Other reviews of The Brunist Day of Wrath can be found at the following links (current as of early 2015):

The New York Times Book Review

Numéro Cinq

The Rumpus.net: The Online Cure for Ritalin

The Wall Street Journal

New Yorker

Coover reads from The Brunist Day of Wrath:
The Center for Fiction

o o o o o

In addition to The Brunist Day of Wrath and The Origin of the Brunists, Robert Coover's many works of fiction include The Public Burning, John's Wife, Pinocchio in Venice, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre: Directors' Cut, and Pricksongs & Descants, to mention only his most notorious. He is also the star of FlashPøint #15.