by Frank Turner Hollon, MacAdam/Cage, 2012; 223 pages, $20.
“The Book of Neil” contemplates the return of Jesus to our contemporary, self-absorbed world. It ponders what He might do to have us silence our cell phones, turn off our tablets and look away from Honey Boo-Boo — in essence, what He would have to do to be “seen.”
“The first time I saw Jesus was on the fourteenth hole of Crystal Creek golf course on a Friday afternoon around 3:30. He was part of a threesome ahead of us ... I tried not to stare.” So begins the wildly comic first chapter, in which Frank Turner Hollon introduces Neil, one of his book’s four voices.
Neil is a discontented husband and father whose wife, especially, “has an unquenchable need for more. More money. More square feet of living space. More shoes. More everything.” No wonder Neil readily agrees to help Jesus rob a local bank.
Jesus’ plan is to let Neil keep the money they steal. All He wants is make an appearance in the media, which seems to keep people from talking to — not at — each other. The robbery is a way for Him to be seen as someone other than a deranged preacher on a street corner.
At this point, Hollon could have moved “The Book of Neil” into the wildly comic terrain he unearths in “Life is a Strange Place” and “Austin and Emily.” Yet the book becomes not literary experiment, not satiric stunt, not cautionary caper. It subtly transforms itself into a sincere, deeply felt contemplation on what faith means to a world that increasingly embraces fragmentation. Hollon astonishes us by making “The Book of Neil” a sympathetic look at people who are as desperate for hope in this world as Neil is.
Three others also narrate their “gospels.” Edwin, the police chief, cannot understand the family tragedy that continues to haunt him. Chris, the New York Times reporter covering the “Jesus Bandit” story, cannot believe in the existence of any greater power. Becky, the teller whom Jesus robs at the bank, cannot resist giving Jesus a home in her basement, hoping his presence will relieve the lack of symmetry in her life.
Frank Turner Hollon is represented in nearly every contemporary genre, police procedural to mystery, comic novel to children’s book. Now he gives us parable, and again he refuses to judge any character, no matter how unseemly.
Surely, “The Book of Neil” is a bequest to us from Hollon, a contemporary writer anxious for us to possess the same understanding and compassion he himself has for the characters populating every one of his novels.
His is a gospel to embrace.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.