October 3, 2011 by markstani
Nazareth, North Dakota is a fictional place, as far as I can make out, unless it’s so small it’s dropped off the Google map entirely. But it wouldn’t be in the least bit surprising if it did exist: the US is studded with Bible-named towns – Bethlehem, Tenn; Galilee, Miss; and real-life Nazareths from Kentucky to Texas: each one a testament (pardon the pun) to the historic significance of religion in American life.
Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota, is a place quite unlike anywhere else, real or not. Hunkered in a dust-bowl on the brink of the Badlands, it’s a place of frayed family values and corrupt local politics; fugitive moms, daredevil stunt-bikers and a couple of wayward cousins, either one of whom may or may not be the Son of God.
Zurhellen’s extraordinary, sprawling novel has been described as an allegory of the New Testament; the whole thing ripped up and re-deposited in America’s third least populous state over three decades starting in the 1980s. But that hardly does it justice: his book is far too inventive to be any more than loosely frameworked by scripture; and it’s by no means any kind of attempt to spread the word: the two most overtly religious characters are both wandering preachers, one of whom quit his family to leave Gideon bibles in love motels.
Nor is Jan, one of the potential Saviours, shut away in theology classes through his youth. He works shifts at the meat counter of the SuperValu, where he eases boredom by shaping the ground beef into models of the Starship Enterprise. ‘Brothers’, says one pastor to a bunch of others increasingly concerned at their rapidly dwindling flocks, ‘we all say we’re men of God. We say our job is to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah on earth. But what if the Messiah did come from a little town in North Dakota? Would we even know it?’
Zurhellen’s Nazareth is a place whose way of life is underpinned by futile aspirations of wholesomeness – of schoolgirls on charity cupcake stands ‘with pastel print dresses blowing in the warm September breeze like flags at a theme park’, and set in a deep-rooted conviction that that wholesomeness will be achieved via religious means: statistics put North Dakota as America’s most religious state, with just three per cent of non-believers.
There’s a kidnapped baby, a horribly corrupt old Sheriff, the world’s oldest man, a young girl whom it turns out will do just about anything to get herself saved –‘everyone knew the Sheriff’s stepdaughter had a reputation for being a free spirit, but not this free, especially on a Sunday’ – and, as if this crazy fire-and-brimstone tale was not enough, an escaped circus elephant thudding the Plains.
Raucously engaging from first to last, Nazareth, North Dakota delves into the superstitions of the State’s earliest settlers, and raises important contemporary questions about what some might figure is the over-importance of religion in US life today. But it’s also a much simpler story about love and loss and the importance of choosing your own path, no matter what life throws at you.
Zurhellen’s admirable attempt to remain largely faithful to the framework, at least, of the New Testament, allows him to create a series of fragmented stories, and resist the temptation to wrap the whole lot up with a nice bow on top. The last page leaves a whole lot open: Zurhellen is already working on a sequel, Apostle Islands, due in the summer of 2012. If it’s anything like Nazareth, North Dakota, it will be another crazy, sprawling, irresistible treat, and another sure-fire contender for book of the year.