Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962-64)
Eddie Valpolicella, a successful novelist, and a Roman Catholic by birth, is the protagonist in this engaging novel. Eddie is invited to do a reading gig for a Methodist group in Little Rock. It is still slush time in the Northeast and Eddie chooses a road trip over air travel because he needs time for himself and wants to experience springtime greening as he heads south.
Having said goodbye to his wife and family, Eddie rumbles along, grateful for this gift of time, surprised and content that people in Little Rock are familiar with his books. A good guy, Eddie stops to pick up a hitchhiker whose skin is much darker than most New Englanders. Maybe from the Middle East, Eddie thinks.
What puts Eddie on edge is that this man, probably in his thirties, says he’s on his way to hear writer Eddie Valpolicella read from his book in Little Rock because he loved his earlier book, Breakfast with Buddha. (Author Murullo, who actually wrote that book, has written himself into his latest novel in an amusing and tricky way.)
What? Is this guy stalking Eddie? What’s his game? On guard, Eddie introduces himself as the writer in question. The hitchhiker replies, “I’m Jesus . . . Jesus the Christ.” Eddie warns Jesus not to “mess” with him, but playing along, starts to challenge Jesus about his life. For example, he brings up Jesus’ harsh treatment of his mother when, after he had gone missing in Jerusalem, his parents finally find him preaching to religious scholars in the temple. His mother asks him why he has worried her and his father in that way. Admonishing her, Jesus tells Mary he had to be about his Father’s business, with no mention of Joseph. Hitchhiker Jesus curtly explains himself to Eddie: “It was wrongly written down. I would never in a million lifetimes” speak to her rudely. I still don’t.”
Jesus wants Eddie to write of his “Gap” years, those years between ages thirteen and his crucifixion and death. There is no mention of them in the Bible.
Why not? We know that Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents after the temple incident, but then what? Turns out that he did some heavy traveling (by foot) and that he had significant turning points in his life about which the world knows nothing.
During their journey south, there are many instances in which Jesus manifests his omniscience, wisdom, compassion and gentle power, but Eddie’s youthful unquestioning faith has turned into firm resistance. Why, for example, would Jesus choose and trust Eddie to write the missing pieces of his story? Jesus, all the while, is nonchalant. Ever patient with Eddie, he never tries to impress, just lives life fully and generously. But our Jesus is full of surprises. While seemingly poor, he surprises Eddie with an invitation to lunch at the ritzy Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. This gesture galls Eddie upon whom Jesus seemed economically dependent, and now he wants to buy Eddie lunch at some effete restaurant!
RPCVs will feel a deep kinship with Eddie. He shares in their collective social conscience: “It seems to me,” he thinks, “that the places in the world where I’d least like to live are places where a thin layer of the very wealthy sat atop a mound of working masses.” (He also muses on the failures in communist societies, a phenomenon he, Eddie, the narrator, aka Roland Merullo, wrote about in A Russian Requiem.)
At the Greenbrier, Jesus changes his rumpled travel clothes and emerges from the men’s room wearing a designer suit and Brioni shoes, informing Eddie that James Bond had worn the same brand. Eventually, our narrator forgets himself, and for the first time, refers to “so-called Jesus” as “Jesus,” but we, the readers, are way ahead of him. The fact that Eddie slips with names doesn’t mean he’s entirely convinced, but his heart has cracked open a bit.
Eddie challenges Jesus with more questions — about evil, suffering, and the purpose of each of our lives. Jesus knows about the hours Eddie spends in meditation and confesses that India was his favorite country during those Gap years. “It’s not what you believe that determines your spiritual progress, Edward, it’s what you actually do.” Eddie continues to flush out more of those years, but he’s still a doubter. He loves his wife and children so much and misses them terribly. Knowing how much people are capable of loving, how can God separate them from one another through death? Wouldn’t there need to be something more, something where that love can persist, endure?
There are more delicate (and creative) miracles laced throughout the book before Jesus disappears again, leaving his driver confused, relieved, but also disappointed. He misses his sidekick. Eddie reaches Little Rock alone, has a successful reading, but you will have to read the ending for yourselves. No matter what your religious persuasion or even if you have none, you will fall in love with Merullo’s Jesus. The book does not proselytize. It is a moral and theological romp.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten wrote A Longing for Wisdom: One Woman’s Conscience and her Church. Among her books is The Mourning of Angels, a novel informed by her Peace Corps years in Peru. www.patriciaedmistenbooks.com