Everything Matters!

Ron Currie, Jr. has published two books of fiction: The first, God Is Dead, began with the premise that God, having visited earth as an African woman, had been eaten by a pack of wild dogs, leaving the rest of humanity to figure out life without a reigning deity. The second, Everything Matters!, presumes that a young man born, like Currie, in the '70s, is the "fourth smartest person in the history of the world" (Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha may -- or may not -- fit in there somewhere) and the sole human who knows that the earth will be destroyed by a comet on June 15, 2010, thus leaving him with the awesome responsibility of saving -- or not saving -- the inhabitants his home planet by his 36th birthday. Currie has not yet turned 33 (the "Christ year," according to some of those who, like the author, were raised Catholic.) You might call him an ambitious novelist. That might be an understatement.

Fittingly enough for a novel that will attempt to explain human life, we start off the first page in the womb. "Enjoy this time!" exhort the unnamed omniscient narrators who speak to us and our hero in the first person plural (much to the discomfort of his high school girlfriend, who will briefly suspect that her lover is not a messiah but rather a paranoid schizophrenic), and who seem to be in the position to offer a guidance and much later a few, rare bargaining chips to ensure that the world ends in a satisfactory manner. "You will need to flex your arms and legs, loll your head to strengthen the neck, crawl, stagger to your feet, then walk," they tell him. "Soon after, you must learn to run, share, swing a bat and hold a pencil, love, weep, read, tie your shoelaces, bathe and die."

It is, perhaps, ironic that the person entrusted with the fate of the earth, once he emerges from the womb into a working-class household in rural Maine, is known by the patriarchal diminutive, Junior, though this certainly fits nicely with the father-son theme in certain world religions (Currie, it might be pointed out, is also a Junior, a Ron to his character's John; his own father died a year before publication). And what a patriarch! Junior's father embodies an archetypal American masculinity: a man so silent he is "nearly mute" (the voices advise: "Know this and accept it, so that you don't waste energy, in later years, trying in vain to elicit words like 'love' and 'proud' from him") with a ferocious devotion to family and duty that comes out of what he sacrifices (booze, a baseball career thwarted by service in Vietnam) and what he defends (his aforementioned country and his wife and sons). This is the kind of guy who, when forced to borrow five dollars from a bus driver to buy his son a sandwich, actually mails the five dollars back with interest. His drive to be useful is so strong that he even asks for extra shifts at the bakery and warehouse after he wins the lottery (the latter luck attributed to another bizarre wrinkle in his son's story).

Like many gifted children, Junior feels set apart from his peers, though in his case, he knows his "gift," such as it is, makes him literally a spectacularly singular person. At school, "the other kids think he is a Jedi knight or something" while the teachers resent him, rightly recognizing that he is "eight times as smart, exponentially, than the smartest among them." When his moodiness provokes the attention of the administration, he thinks to himself: "You have no idea, sirs. I am not your routinely disturbed adolescent, pissed off about some generic bullying or lack of attention from my daddy. I see visions that make Hiroshima look like a cherry bomb. Visions you would find terrifying, even if you did not know, as I do, that they were true." The one person who does offer a kind of solace is his equally geeky girlfriend, Amy, who, in archetypal fashion, will be the only woman he loves or even considers loving throughout his life, though he often bums her out -- what to do when one's boyfriend is the kind of guy who "sits around brooding about road kill"?

Leaving him is one option, and Amy chooses a normal life at Stanford University while the traumatized Junior decides to drink away his early young adulthood at the local bars in their hometown. But his is no ordinary misery; soon enough, mysterious men show up to remind him of his mission, should he choose to accept it, and he goes underground.

Once we leave Maine, the novel careens into action, with stop-offs at government bunkers, clandestine meetings at the Econo-Lodge, and a university lab where Junior just might find a cure for cancer. Reading some scenes -- including a hilarious mishap involving tampering with an airline smoke detector that accelerates into an encounter with a duplicitous government agent, a grisly torture scene, and a just-in-the-knick of time rescue by our romantic hero -- one feels as if one is reading a treatment for some future summer blockbuster.

This is not a sly way to say that it is a poorly written novel. It is, in fact, a masterfully executed work of fiction, with a kind of thrumming prose that lifts off on every page. But it also has a fast-paced, allusive ease that marks a writer synthesizing elements from every corner -- world religion, pop culture, George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, '80s big-budget action movies, romantic comedies. One might say it is not merely literature. Call it extra-literary.

When we reach the point that the end of the story seems certain, the narrative folds back on itself and offers us other possible versions (one can't help but wonder if this neat trick found its inspiration in the Choose Your Own Adventure Books familiar to those who were children in the '80s). Unlike, say, those condemned to a hundred years of solitude in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, will Currie's characters have a second opportunity on earth?

I won't spoil it, save to say that the final page has the quality of beautiful inevitability. In telling the story of a boy who tries to save the world, Currie comes back to the primal domestic drama that concerns each one of us: How do we live with the certainty that we will lose, in one way or another, those who matter to us most -- who may as well be the world?

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

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