BOOK REVIEW
Roland Merullo who served in Micronesia back in the day has written a political book that is “right on” when it comes to what is happening in Washington today. And Matt Losak, who served as a PCV in Lesotho, and later worked  as an advance man for President Clinton,  reviews the book for our site. You might say it is a match made in heaven, or…

american-saviorAmerican Savior
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979-80)
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008

Reviewed by Matt Losak (Lesotho 1985-88)

So, you’re thinking we may have just elected the ideal candidate for President of the United States:  he’s black and white and well-read all over, he’s good looking, he’s from everywhere U.S.A. and possesses a political mind that synthesizes the nation’s best visionary thought into today’s kitchen-table problem solving. But in Roland Merullo’s, American Savior, there comes along a third-party candidate, or, should I say, then comes along the second coming of a very special candidate who manages to top them all and his name is Jesus Christ. At least that’s the set up for this fun and sardonic novel where we are treated to the dream campaign of every closet idealist in a novel of divine politics.

Now I have to say that I come from the combined perspective of jaded RPCV (and I was jaded before I went into the Peace Corps!) and overweight, cigar-smoking political hack. So, in many ways, I am extremely vulnerable to the seduction of a story like this. Not that I haven’t experience a kind of divine politics of my own.

As an advanceman in the Clinton White House, I remember standing guard over a pen of about 300 hungry reporters as the President, holding the multi-colored hands of a half-dozen children, crossed a south Texas high school stadium field, four school bands madly blaring Ruffles and Flourishes followed by Hail to the Chief as though their country depended on them, thousands cheering wildly. Clinton, white haired and aglow in the beginning of his second term, alighted the stage like an athlete and stood at the podium with such charismatic radiance that even the bomb-sniffing dogs stood like pointers. Now the set up for an event like this takes about 7 days of advance work by hundreds of people, so when the President’s speech lifted up from the podium and swirled like feathers into the clouds, we all gasped. And for a very dangerous moment I thought this would be my chance to help out Bill by chasing down the white sheets, but I thought the better of it. Good thing too, because this was no average politician. Clinton began without skipping a beat, “Let me tell what was on all those pieces of paper.” And without skipping a word, or an opportunity to embellish brilliantly, he outlined to a wholly converted audience why national service, including the Peace Corps, was one of America’s best investments in a strong democracy. That was the closest thing to divine politics I had ever seen. But that was real life, and Bill, of course, was no Jesus Christ.

In American Savior,we are treated to a whirl-wind campaign story of its own that begins with the one of our most cynical types–a local television news reporter–sent to the worst side of town to cover the story of a ghetto boy who has fallen from a third-story tenement balcony to his death, at least until he is touched on the shoulder by a nice guy happening by.  Sent to cover another so-called miracle of an inexplicably cured child similarly touched by the mysterious “Good Visitor” at the local children’s hospital, Russ Thomas begins to get the feeling that the miracle worker may be the real thing. In short order, and against every sensibility of our lead character’s rich cynicism and resistance to faith and folly, we are drawn ineluctably deeper into the excitement and hope of the campaign of the millennia. Because, after all, wouldn’t it be totally cool if it were true?

Merullo anticipates his readers’ objections to this fantasy tale by developing characters who intelligently express them for us just as we arrive at them. How many times have you thought, “Oh, come on, he’d never do that…” before putting the book down, or rising to buy popcorn. In American Savior, Merullo heads us off at the pass.  When Thomas meets Jesus for the first time at an Italian restaurant he is fully prepared to endure the pleadings of a delusional. Hearing Jesus’s story, and his request to quit his job and join the campaign, Thomas leaves the meeting suggesting that Jesus prove who he is by sending his next message in a dream, “That’s the way they did it in the old days,” he says with not too little sarcasm. Jesus does not disappoint.

If your first objection to a story like this is that it’s a Christian story, oh ye of little faith, fear not. Merullo adroitly covers the bases through one character or another. Russ Thomas, the son of a devoutly Catholic mother and working-class Jewish father, is possessed of a sarcastic, smart-ass persona he’s developed over the years to protect himself from his life’s considerable pain and dashed hopes. Thomas’s Down syndrome brother and psychiatrist girlfriend-who, by the way, has penchant for sexual role play that even Jesus finds amusing, only intensifies Thomas’s character. Through Thomas, and a wonderful cast of characters that range from gangland toughs to born-again fanatics, cops and robbers, the loving and the violent, we are able to launch our criticism of the whole idea of Jesus on earth and his candidacy, but are swept along by a story that takes one of history’s most important characters and give us the irresistible opportunity to walk him through a modern world of troubles, asking his opinion and advice. Fun like this just hasn’t been had since Captain Kirk and Spock navigated the streets of San Francisco in search of whales.

For the closet idealist, RPCV or no, who is still waiting for that perfect leader who understands truth and justice in a complex world, American Savior gives a Jesus we can root for, not too defined, not too clearly opinionated, but smart, funny and good looking. What’s not to like? The fact that you already know what’s going to happen won’t stop you from turning the pages.

Matt Losak is the communications director at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.