Merullo again takes on religion, but this time he makes it a lot more accessible than in Golfing with God (2005, etc.).
Eschewing the previous novel’s flat-out fantasy (setting: heaven; narrator: dead), the author here provides a realistic framework that plays to his strengths as an astute observer of society and sympathetic analyst of individual psyches. Otto Ringling, a senior editor at a New York publishing house, likes his job, loves his wife and two teenage children and takes pride in the comfortable life he’s built. But he’s been shaken by the recent death of his parents in a car crash: “All these joys and miseries, all this busyness, all this stuff…I started to ask myself, leads exactly where?” He’s not looking forward to a long drive to North Dakota with his sister Cecelia to sort through their parents’ possessions. And he’s infuriated when Cecelia informs him she’s not going after all, but sending instead her “guru,” Volya Rinpoche, to whom she intends to donate the family farmhouse and her share of the land for a retreat in North Dakota. Otto’s not happy to be traveling with a man in a maroon robe who seems almost a buffoon, with his broken English and tendency to talk in riddles. Slowly, as Merullo sends this odd couple down rural back roads through beautifully described landscapes, we see Otto’s defenses dropping as Volya’s quiet wisdom becomes apparent. The lessons imparted are neither new nor startling (live fully in the moment, etc.), but the author eloquently conveys their simple power to ease Otto’s mind and heart. Volya makes no claim to be “the incarnation of the Buddha” others have called him, but this low-key novel movingly shows him to be a tender lover of humanity.
Spiritual fiction is a byway little traveled by mainstream authors, but Merullo has grown so persuasive over the course of two luminous little novels that readers might well follow him even if he turned next to, say, Mornings with Mohammed.