Cold monsters

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, God: A Biography, Jack Miles examined the Lord Almighty as a literary character, as he appears throughout the Hebrew bible. God, Miles concluded, is “angry, imperious and literally stormy.” He is often wrathful.

What he was not was a Dinka woman who dies in Sudan.

Here is the brilliance of Ron Currie Jr.’s cavalierly ambitious debut, God is Dead, a collection of stories that borrows a title from Nietzsche, and a setting from the world’s worst ongoing genocide—all this in a work of fiction that aims to examine the weightiest moral dilemmas of humankind.

As the book opens, God manifests in the body of a wounded Dinka woman looking for her brother, who has been sold into slavery. She is helped by Colin Powell, who happens to be visiting her village in Darfur, Sudan.

But when the former secretary of state leaves, she is butchered with the other residents of the village by the Janjaweed, and then eaten by wild dogs.

Reading this book means getting used to these occasional blind-sides from the iron skillet of Currie’s imagination. Just when the ringing in your ears dies down, Currie Jr. whacks you again.

Those who take their God sacredly may not want to apply, but in fairness to Currie Jr., it is the end of the world he’s writing about—all bets are off. As in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, set in Australia as a massive nuclear fall-out cloud comes closer and closer, civilization literally breaks down.

“Indian Summer” describes how a group of teenage friends spends the waning months of their lives drinking beer, playing video games, then making a suicide pact which only some of them follow through on.

From story to story, worlds change and yet the tone of this book doesn’t shift. It retains a stiff-lipped, black-soul dryness. There’s a fright-night quality to Currie Jr.’s irony, one not meant to scare but rather focus your attention through the sensory dissonance caused by serious concerns addressed in silly ways.

The title of “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack Which Fed on God’s Corpse” speaks for itself. In the story, the questions appear as blanks, but the answers suggest the interrogatives. “No,” goes one of the dog’s more suggestive answers. “I’d expend more calories in the effort of chewing you than I would gain. Too thickly muscled.”

Each story runs following a Biblical quote that casts a light upon the action about to unfold. A passage from Jeremiah, for example, heads up “The Helmet of Salvation and the Sword of the Spirit,” a farcical tale of a teenage boy trying to decide whether he ought to go to war on behalf of Post-modern Anthropologists, a group whose hilariously abstruse positions highlight the absurdity of war.

This is not really how fiction about weighty theological issues is supposed to go, but there is a shining precedent for Currie Jr.’s bulletproof humor. Nietzsche famously proclaimed, “God is Dead” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a fabulist tale about the fictional journeys and teaching of a prophet by the name of Zarathustra, who was particularly harsh on states. “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters,” Zarathustra warns, “it tells lies, too.”

God is Dead feels pitched at our contemporary world climate, where the failure of states has met its latest nadir in Sudan—not just from the Sudanese government, which aids the genocide, but the coalition of governments at the U.N. and in the Arab League, both of which have proven unable (or unwilling) to stop the killings.

Currie Jr. proves miraculously able to raise the specter of these abject breakdowns in human civilization and then people that image with talking dogs, text-message happy teenagers, and end of day shenanigans.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, he seems to understand that in the face of grim and grave concerns, humor is a more powerful salt than screed. Still, I can promise you this: You won’t be laughing your way to the end of this inspired debut.