Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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When December of 2012 rolled around, the end of the Mayan long count, the local television station in this little town set up a special on “prepping” for the apocalypse, interviewing a well-armed guy with a family bunker in east Texas and ending the show with some local pastor’s call to accept Jesus. In the middle they interviewed me, and I said something about the Qur’an that might have demonstrated some tone-deafness to my audience, and basically repeated the old saw about how the end of the world, as imagined and desired by religious communities throughout history, is always just the end of the status quo—society ends, oppression, various hierarchies and institutions, but people (us, the good guys, with Jesus in our hearts and pockets full of ammo for our AR-15s, we climb up from the safe room to a brave new world). In the end is the beginning. The various whimpers and bangs along the way are, while dramatic, ultimately besides the point. It’s the gurgling birth cries of a new order that matter. That world gets rolled up and set aflame. Now’s another chance to get the world right.
Zurhellen’s book—the third in his fascinating Messiah Trilogy—starts with what most folks would call the post-apocalyptic. The end of the world already happened, more or less, on a Wednesday. We are left with a remnant, living in the ruins of the old world. There is a boy who studies in the basement of a library, for instance, and tries to piece together the way things used to be:
When this was Texas, everyone would ride around in transportations called pickup trucks and wear unusual hats and drink the urine of farm animals. (Urine is an old English word for piss.) In Texas, there were many boys and girls my size with strange names like Nerd and Douchebag and Kevin. They would all go to the Prison located in their city to read books and learn how to make sex. (Sex is another old word that means poontang, but in Texas if you stated “poontang” out loud, old people would hit you or put you in a room with a bed, until you starved to death.)
The end of the world was linguistic as well as physical, then. Cities burned, and Alabama sunk beneath a sea. But words like “shindig, cahoots, cornucopia, nerd, labradoodle,” and most of all “love” ceased to have any meaning, or (like “prison” in the above quote) meant something else, their past sense now ajar. This, of course, is part of a necessary cleaning of the slate and serves thus a double purpose for Zurhellen, who can write passages here of radical inventiveness, in terms of prose, while also imagining the rebirth of language, a dawn of new naming and new Creation through poetry (“Before God invented water or air or amoebas or even sunlight, there was poetry”).
Blending re-imaginings of Genesis with Beowulf (though a thousand other sources figure in, to some degree, in this pastiche), Zurhellen gives us, to be sure, a story—one rich with drama and suspense, sacrifice and something we could call “love”—but so much of the pleasure of this book is in the individual sections, the different voices, the pleasure Zurhellen obviously took in engaging in this world, having picked up speed in the first two volumes and here, liberated, like a child in the garden, eating all the fruit he can grab. Along the way, he retweaks conceptions (from various traditions) regarding the relation of Word to thing, to power, to divinity, to will and freedom. We get beautiful new serpents and jealous gods and loyal dogs and a new Eve who says (maybe like the first one did): “Look around, Adam. We are the rules.”
Come for the dragon-fighting in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Texas, the last pick-up truck on earth roaring toward the hills on a suicide mission. But stay for an important young writer who, in this impressive book, is likewise stripping through the gears, going at full speed and all aflame, writing like the end of the world:
Adam stood there for a moment, perfectly still, rolling the word off his tongue. Trees. Trees. Trees. “I have never observed a tree before,” he called out as he ran to catch up with her. Until now, he had only seen them in books, as illustrations and in the background of photographs. In the pictures he’d seen, there were trees everywhere in Texas, all different shapes and sizes. He wondered if people took trees for granted if there were so many, all over the place. To him, they were a wonder he had never seen with his own eyes, as magical as a truck or a dragon. As Adam and Eve walked quickly together, the boy tried to remember everything he had learned about trees from the basement of Carnegie, a list of knowledge pouring through his head. Trees together were called a forest. Forests could either be deciduous or coniferous. There was a coniferous tree in some place called Guam that had poisonous sap. Poets would sit under the non-poisonous trees and write their poems in the shade.