Reverend America preaches a twisted gospel

There are flashes of brilliance throughout Reverend America, Kris Saknussemm’s ambitious new novel about an albino faith healer who becomes the unlikely guardian of a pregnant teenage prostitute. It’s a serio-comic romp about faith, sin and redemption, utterly original and unlike anything I’ve read in ages, but also challenging at times and not without problems.

Saknussemm—the 2011-12 recipient of the Black Mountain Institute’s Tom and Mary Gallagher Fellowship at UNLV—is something of a literary genre-hopper who doesn’t like being tied down (though his characters sometimes do). The 50-year-old author’s travels have led him to spend time in Australia and the Pacific Islands, and his previous novels include forays into science fiction and crime noir pastiche, with erotic and supernatural elements.

Reverend America (Dark Coast Press, $17) is the story of Mathias Gaspenny, an albino orphan adopted by Mungo and Rosalie Appleton, a pair of carnival hucksters-turned-faith healers. Renamed Mathias True, the boy joins the act, memorizing Bible passages and singing hymns along with “Reverend True” and “Sister Rosalie.” Eventually, Mathias is fully reborn as “Reverend America,” preaching the gospel with the kind of practiced fanaticism that guarantees large crowds and overflowing collection plates.

Inevitably, the swindlers are hustled themselves and lose everything. In the process, Mathias is effectively orphaned once more. Left to fend for himself, he encounters the kinds of tribulations and trials that result in prison terms, where he is rechristened “Casper” in reference to his ghost-like appearance. Reverend America flits back and forth in time and space, sometimes maddeningly; references are frequently made to significant characters (Berina Pinecoffin, Summer Shield, Joe Meadow) before they can be properly introduced. A liberal use of dialect also muddies the prose.

Eventually, Casper crosses paths with Angelike (or “Little Red”), the pregnant teenage prostitute. Thrown together after a moment of impulsive violence, they spend the last two-thirds of the novel seeking shelter from all sorts of disasters—both personal and natural. Reverend America’s supporting cast includes a dozen eccentric characters, along with the concept of “Rinders,” or Good Samaritans: those “folks who stop to help you—to give you that one little thing you need to keep going on your own.”

There’s much to like in Reverend America, but in the end, Saknussemm failed to make a true believer out of me. As I read the book I was frequently struck with the notion that Reverend America was being presented as a cult novel without first earning its reputation among readers. And that, my friends, is the deadliest literary sin. ★★☆☆☆

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