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Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Time Event
6:41a
Another odd one ...
I know that I start a lot of these reviews with some comment about how "odd", "strange" or quirky a particular book is, but how else could one intro Killing The Buddha: A Heretic's Bible by Jeff Sharlet & Peter Manseau? Even the cover, with it's red X on the sky (and no text), is a head-scratcher, and while being less obscure within, it seems to seek out a certain eccentricity. From the same folks who bring you the KillingTheBuddha.com web site/magazine ("Killing the Buddha is a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God."), this volume is a nightmarish mash-up of a road trip into the religious backwaters (of assorted stripes) of America, and an edgy re-imaging of various books of the Bible.

The book ping-pongs back and forth between the nominal authors' travel notes, and 13 short essays which are more-or-less tagged to 13 books of the Bible. Some are outright re-tellings of the source material, some have some vague "parallel message", and some don't seem to be particularly related at all, so this falls short for anybody who saw the sub-title and was really hoping for a "heretic's bible"!

As regular readers of this space know, I don't read much of any fiction (the last fiction title I read was 250 books ago), so it's probably not a great surprise that I had far less patience with some of the "books" of this Bible than I had for their connecting narrative. The elements of the authors' road trip were fascinating and generally incisive to the subject at hand, yet all too brief in the context of the book as whole. Could they really have come home from months on the road with only a hundred or so pages of material? Unfortunately, that's how the book feels, like they'd set out to do a great "road book" that would follow the by-ways of American religious expression, and came up with not-quite-a-book and then tried to figure out a way to save the project ... pulling in a baker's dozen of novelists and story-tellers to flesh out the holes. Frankly, had this pitched itself as "a collection of short stories dealing with religion", I'd have been very unlikely to have bothered with it ... but others might find that more appealing.

As I was reading this, I dropped in scraps of paper (as is my habit) to serve as bookmarks to particularly attractive phrases, but coming back to the book, none of them make any sense, as there is no continuity here (except in the most general over-arching thematic sense), each voice so different from the others. What use is it to say that such-and-so contributor had a particularly sweet paragraph in a story that I then have to explain to give it context? It would only confuse. Unfortunately, with one exception, all those bookmarks ended up in the stories and not in the travelogue.

Again, I wish this book was the travel story ... a journey from New York, NY, to Poolesville, MD, Henderson, NC, Myrtle Beach, SC, Broward County, FL, "an orange grove, somewhere in Florida", Nashville, TN, Mount Vernon, TX, Crestone, CO, East L.A., CA, "unincorporated territory", OK, Heartland, KS, and Geneva, IL. Those parts, while structurally being the bones of the book, were actually "the meat" ... and it's a shame that the authors weren't able to make a whole book of that.

Anyway, if Killing The Buddha sounds appealing to you, it's still in print in paperback, and can be had for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping) from the Amazon new/used guys. Again, I "don't do fiction" as a rule, and this is, essentially, a collection of short stories, which goes a long way to explaining why I didn't much care for it. Others might find it of far greater interest.


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