Robert Coover

Robert Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, focused on a doomsday prophet and his millenialist cult that seize control of a small town after a coal mining disaster. It is a brilliant exploration of violence, how high-minded aspirations can lead to gruesome results. Nearly fifty years later, he has delivered a sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, which takes place five years later, after the cult has spread across the country.

Describing the first novel in the Wall Street Journal, Howard Schneider explains: “One of the few survivors [of the disaster] is Giovanni Bruno, whose name is probably a mischievous allusion to Giordano Bruno, the Renaissance-era Renaissance man. I say "mischievous" because Giovanni is an imbecile. The fatuous sentence fragments that he occasionally utters are taken as profundities by many West Condoners, and a cult swiftly forms that believes Bruno to be a prophet and the end of the world to be imminent. The Brunists are born.

“Born, but not left in peace. The mine calamity's repercussions (West Condon's already feeble economy has been virtually destroyed) have exacerbated the paranoia of the Brunists and those—the rest of the town—who oppose them. The cultists (they are Pentecostal Protestants) just want to be left alone to await the Rapture. Their enemies see them as symbols of everything undermining West Condon. The inevitable roiling confrontation—chaos, arrests, deaths—engenders a chiliastic chill in the reader. But at the end of Origin, the Brunists, West Condon and the world still exist.”

Five years later, he continues, “West Condon is even shabbier than before, its despair and anxieties more pronounced. Ardor is manifested only in religiosity, sex (the two—fueled by the same anguish and rage—are often indistinguishable), and carnage. When the day of wrath erupts this time, it is a savage Wagnerian spectacle.”

 “In both [novels],” Stephen Burn writes in the New York Times Book Review, “Coover moves among a vast range of characters’ minds to create a collaborative neural map of the town, a choral lament borne of the frustration, longing and rage tumbling from the homes, bars and workplaces that make up Coover’s small-town America. … [The novel] is, at heart, an indictment of America’s current marriage of religion and politics.” 

Schnieder notes: “The book is an assiduous, canny exploration of class relationships in an insular society—mainstream Protestants versus fundamentalist Protestants, Protestants versus Catholics, gentry versus blue collar—and how those relationships are suffused with fear, cynicism, hatred and spirituality. (The book reminds me of "Moby-Dick," of all things, which is also about a hermetic hierarchical society rife with metaphysical brooding.) Moreover, Mr. Coover doesn't condescend to his characters. He extends sympathy, for the most part, to nobs and the working class, the pious and atheists, and even fools and grotesques (the members of the Blaurock family, for example, who make Faulkner's Snopes clan seem like the Bloomsbury circle). Mr. Coover's sensitivity and compassion guide the reader to an understanding of the novel's many acts of benightedness, although—rightly—he doesn't try to coerce the reader's assent to them.”

Sounds grim, but try to read it through Coover’s eyes. As he recently explained to the Boston Globe: “A lesson I learned from reading [Thomas Pynchon’s] V has stuck with me all my life: All my work is basically comic, and even though this book has very harsh and violent scenes, its modus is still comedy. That’s the only thing I have ever written. Even though they’re not always viewed as such, the books are all meant as comic works.” It reminds one of Kafka, unable to continue reading “The Trail” through his own tears of laughter.

 Robert Coover’s Top Ten List – with his comments, picks in chronological order

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (18th century B.C.E.?). The ur-narrative and a kind of secret text for initiates (i.e., other writers).

2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 c.e.). The poet. Unmatched in all of literary history.

3. The Celestina (1499), probably by Fernando de Rojas. Both ur-novel and ur-drama at the same time. Second greatest work in the Spanish language.

4. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote (1605, 1615). The hidalgo who sallied forth and launched a form that would dominate for over four centuries. Greatest work in the Spanish language and one of the greatest in any language.

5. The Collected Shakespeare, contemporary of Cervantes and greatest writer in his own language. It would be hard to choose a single work. Those that I have been closest to all my life are The Tempest (1610), King Lear (1605) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), though my favorites of the moment change from season to season, performance to performance.

6. Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), my choice as the greatest American novel. The beast we’re all chasing. Melville my inspiration and guide in difficult times.

7. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). None can match it for depth, breadth, artistry. As Shakespeare’s plays rise and fall in my affections from year to year, so too do the chapters and voices of Ulysses. At the moment, it’s the Ithaca chapter, which didn’t touch me at all the first time through.

8. Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones (1944) his breakthrough book, though it’s difficult to limit Borges to particular texts, and it’s probably better to choose Labyrinths, as that book anthologizes Ficciones and several other books. All his writings, including his essays and poetry, are of a piece and hugely influential throughout the world.

9. Samuel Beckett: really his entire opus from Whoroscope to Stirrings Still. If I had to make a choice, I’d probably fudge a bit and take his novel trilogy, simply because it’s bigger than anything else, even though I prefer his short prose and his plays, long and short. The writer who, life long, has meant the most to me and served, distantly, as mentor.

10. Through the first nine, there’s always room for one more. Now suddenly that door closes. Outside, clamoring not to be excluded are the likes of Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides, Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Rabelais, the Gawain poet and Thomas Malory, Goldoni and Molière, Goethe, Jonathan Swift, Dickens and Dostoevsky, Twain, Baudelaire and Dickinson, Proust, Mann, Kafka, the list goes on and it’s mostly a list only of narrative writers of the Western world, and does not even extend to my generation. Within which, my own writing life has been bound up somewhat with the recent generation of Latin American writers like Donoso, Cortázar, Onetti (to speak only of those no longer among the living), though if I were to single out a particular work, it might be Miguel Ángel Asturias’ El Señor Presidente, or else José Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night. Rather than make a choice, though, not to dishearten the others, I’ll leave them all outside the door, each knowing there might still be room inside.