By James Alexander Protzman
Kitsune Books, 277 pp.
As "Anglico" (and later, as "James"), Chapel Hill's James Alexander Protzman has been the co-creator and driving force behind BlueNC.com, where the good, the bad and the strange sides of North Carolina politics are—from a progressive perspective—existentially explored.
Now, in his debut novel, Jesus Swept, Protzman turns a knowing eye to the weirdness of our everyday existence in the Tar Heel State. As the title suggests, Protzman locates the crux of the matter in our search for life's meaning, which for an eclectic cast of characters takes every possible religious shape, from pagan worship to one character's discovery of three new "commandments."
At the center of the story is a silver bracelet, discovered by a drifter named Gary Gray under the sand of a Carolina beach, that appears to have mystical properties. For one thing, it sings to him:
Later that night he polished the thick silver to a gleaming glow, discovering enough strange engravings to quality for latter-day sainthood. Like Moses on the mountain with his magical commandments, like old Joe Smith and his wondrous golden tablets, little Gary Gray took the symbols for a sign. The bracelet's whispery voices made him Jesus overnight.
When Gary later loses the bracelet, a condo-owning Duke University fundraiser picks it up, and it speaks to her too—through a pelican. Yes, she does think this is odd. But then she learns that what the pelican said to her is the same message as Gary heard.
Gary gathers a couple of followers, the Duke fundraiser summons hers, and a third cohort forms around "Hook," a teenage girl with good intentions but a very bad set of circumstances in her life. Each group comes to think that the bracelet should be theirs, basically because, well, who needs it more? They struggle for it, and the results are comic—and human.
Religion is used and abused, finally, in Protzman's world. But then how could it be otherwise for the various searchers, each of whom would be lost in a private hell but for a willingness to believe that the desperate things they do should be—or at least could be—pleasing to a higher power. In short, they do the best they can with the lives they've been handed, and if it's not very good, they still figure it's religious.
Protzman moves the action briskly, in 99 punchy chapters, to a denouement that is, if not exactly surprising, nonetheless satisfying. The story's a satire, of course, and Protzman is happy to send up everything from the Marines at Camp Lejeune to the Unitarian Universalists in Durham County and public radio in Chapel Hill. But he doesn't send up his characters, because they're all close to his heart.
Jesus Swept has nothing to do with politics, blue or red, unless you think there's some relationship between the ways people use sex, drugs, money (or the lack of it) and belief in order to make sense of their worlds, on the one hand, and their willingness to let politicians exploit them on the other.
But the same qualities that make Protzman a sharp political writer work here in a non-political setting. He calls them as he sees them and stakes out his ground. But it's always with an understanding that most people are doing the best they can, even when their best isn't very good at all.