John the Baptizer’s Second Act

John the BaptizerThe other day I received an unusual publicity letter from Alane Mason, a senior editor at W.W. Norton, enclosed with a copy of John the Baptizer, a recent novel by Brooks Hansen. “It was a long hard summer for books,” Alane wrote,

and in publishing we’re all used to moving on to the next in line even when the books we regard most highly haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. But I can’t let go of Brooks Hansen’s JOHN THE BAPTIZER. The book is simply too smart, too beautifully written, too deeply researched and richly inspired to pass by without due fanfare. Maybe we made a mistake in publishing in June, rather than in the holiday season, when secular audiences feel a certain nostalgia or sympathy for the eternal verities embedded in biblical stories. Maybe we made a mistake calling the book JOHN THE BAPTIZER and giving it a rapturous Caravaggio cover, perhaps sending the unintended — and misleading — signal that this book might fall into the crowded and presumably undistinguished (I wouldn’t know, never having read in it) category of “religious fiction.”

So Alane asks readers, and particularly reviewers, to give the book a second chance, calling it “one of the finest and most richly inspired works of literature I have ever been fortunate enough to be involved with as an editor.” That’s high praise, even by the inflated standards of a press release, and all the more significant if you know Alane — she doesn’t puff books.

Thing is, I’d already given John the Baptizer a chance. I told Alane maybe I’m just the wrong audience — I don’t like historical fiction, either. It tends to be either too anachronistic, larded with inadvertently contemporary language, or too spare, thin description laced with generic voices. I don’t remember my original reaction — too fat? too thin? — but I didn’t keep reading.

“If you’re not seeing what I’m seeing in the book,” Alane wrote when I told her as much, “I can’t help but think it’s because you haven’t gotten as far as page 80, which took my breath away.” So the other night I started on page 80: the story of the murder of John’s father, Zechariah. (I had to revisit my Bible to find out if this was Hansen’s fiction or a biblical story; it’s a little bit of both.) John’s mother, Elizabeth, flees with the boy, to a cave, where

there was no fire burning, or any torch or lantern. Just a man and a woman, standing there, waiting.

The woman [Elizabeth] recognized. It was the Lilith, the one who’d called to her out by the locust tree and ministered to her at the Bitter Sea. Seeing her, Elizabeth knew that had found the place she should.

The man she did not know, but as with the Lilith, the light seemed to be coming from within him.

I was puzzled but intrigued. This passage is neither thin description — indeed, it demands a great deal from the reader — nor greased with contemporary meaning. It’s both opaque and illuminated, and not just because it features a glowing couple in a cave. The prose brings to mind the stony language of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. As in LeGuin, magic is naturalized; it just is. There’s no enchantment, just facts. I think that’s why LeGuin never thrilled me as a child and why I appreciate her books more as an adult. And I think, too, that’s what has presented an obstacle to readers of John the Baptizer who mistake the lack of bells and whistles attendant to the supernatural for an assertion of belief rather than a depiction of it. It’s one thing to accept magic as a fact in an obviously imagined world like LeGuin’s; it’s another to do so when the reader’s own relationship to religion is implicitly at stake. On the one hand, Hansen asks for a suspension of disbelief related to Christianity, which feels as if he’s asking you to believe in Christianity; on the other, his story is alien to anything most people know about Christianity, so readers will look on it with suspicion. Hence the distancing methods of most fictional representations of early Christianity, as either satire or sentimentalism. Brooks engages in neither, and I’m betting that makes people uneasy. It does me. But that’s not a bad thing. So I’ll keep reading, from page one.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).