In my inaugural fiction chronicle this month for COMMENTARY, I single out Roland Merullo’s new novel The Talk-Funny Girl for special praise.
Merullo has been one of my favorites for some time. Fidel’s Last Days, his last book, was a political thriller about a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. He is not a political animal; at worst he is a conventional liberal. What is striking about him, though, is that Merullo does not share the literary left’s romantic illusions about Castro. While not an anti-Communist novel, Fidel’s Last Days remorselessly shows that the fear and distrust of ordinary life in Castro’s Cuba is “no way to live.” That’s more than enough to make it unusual.
In 2008 — two books ago — Merullo wrote a satire in which Jesus of Nazareth returns to earth and decides to run for president of the United States. In an interview, Merullo explained that he first began to write about religion because he
felt there was some space . . . between the dogmatists and the atheists. Most of my friends fall into that space, as do my wife and I, so I tried to explore it in fiction, the medium I know best. I also tried to do it with a sense of humor, something that seems to me often lacking when we talk about meaning of life issues.
American Savior, subtitled A Novel of Divine Politics, is pretty funny about politics. At one point, Jesus asks his political consultants why he is doing so badly in the polls. They are flabbergasted. “We’re up eight points in today’s poll,” one says. “Everybody should be voting for me,” Jesus observes. “Why isn’t everybody voting for me?” “Some of them are Jewish,” a campaign worker points out. About religion, though, the novel is tentative, probably because it is suspended between dogmatism and atheism.
At a news conference, Jesus is asked about abortion. He says that he has no position on it; it is right and wrong. When that satisfies no one, he announces:
[W]ith full respect for the complexity of this matter, as president, within the first two months of my first term, I will convene a national conference on the question of abortion. Held here in Kansas, the heart of the nation, televised nationally. It will not be a debate. Hate speeches will not be allowed. It will be a conference, with speakers representing each position given equal time. This will not satisfy everyone, I realize that.
No kidding. It didn’t even solve the fundamental literary problem that Merullo faced in asking his readers to suspend disbelief at the idea of Jesus running for president. He succeeded only in making the Christian savior sound like any other politician.
In The Talk-Funny Girl, Merullo takes a different approach. As he says in an author’s note, the novel is a “glimpse into the hidden world of New England’s poor.” Moreover, the title character inhabits a hidden world within that hidden world. Marjorie Richards lives with her parents in a small cabin on four acres in the woods, shut in upon themselves “as if enemies surrounded them on all sides.” She did not even attend school until she was nine, and her odd speech puts an even greater distance between her and the world outside her family. If she is not quite a feral child, she is not entirely socialized either. The strangeness of her circumstances makes her story intrinsically interesting.
Her gradual socialization is a religious experience, but Merullo softens the edges of the experience. If Marjorie gets religion, it is something like the Quaker religion that she gets. My only complaint about the novel, in fact, is that Merullo shies from a more unblushing affirmation of her discovery that life is a gift from God — that is the novel’s own language for it. In a literary age that is impatient with religion, perhaps any treatment of the theme, any suggestion that a good life is a worthy goal, runs the risk of being dismissed as dogmatic. And in any event, someone else once said somewhere that God is not in earthquake and fire but in a still small voice. Merullo is in very good company.
Among his other works, his autobiographical novels Revere Beach Boulevard (1998) and In Revere, in Those Days (2002), about growing up in a working-class town just outside Boston, stand out for their strong prose and lack of nostalgia. In a blurb on the jacket of his most recent novel, Anita Shreve says that The Talk-Funny Girl is one of the best novels she has ever read. I never thought I’d found myself nodding in enthusiastic agreement with a jacket blurb, but Roland Merullo writes a nearly flawless hand. If you haven’t ever read him, you should.