Merullo (Vatican Waltz, 2013, etc.) offers a third installment in the spiritual adventures of Otto Ringling.
Otto is in a slightly better place than he was after his cherished wife, Jeannie, died (Lunch With Buddha, 2012), but he’s still resisting the assurances of his brother-in-law, noted Buddhist guru Volya Rinpoche, that suffering is merely a stage in his spiritual journey. Nor, visiting the North Dakota retreat center run by Rinpoche and Otto’s sister, Seese, does he want to hear about Seese’s dream vision proclaiming that Otto and his brother-in-law must travel “to the mountains” to facilitate the meeting of his 7-year-old niece, Shelsa—who her parents believe is “a great spiritual being who’d been born…to save the world from cataclysm”—with another great spirit who will help her change the world. Merullo doesn’t make it easy for skeptical readers with this setup, but that’s the point: on their road trip south, through some of America’s most spectacular national parks as well as several grim Indian reservations and New-Age hotspots like Boulder, we, like Otto, find our cynicism worn away by Rinpoche’s gentle instruction in the simple but terribly difficult art of letting go, living each moment to the fullest, seeing the sacred in the everyday. Merullo never forgets how at odds this wisdom is with frenetic, plugged-in contemporary life, which makes all the more moving those times when Otto is able to surrender to it and see the world “as if the disguise had been yanked away.” Sharp character sketches of people encountered on the way and occasional references to current events (it’s August 2013) keep the narrative from floating away in spiritual self-absorption. It closes in Las Vegas (Rinpoche’s love of gambling is a running joke), where Otto takes one more step along the path of accepting a new way of being and looking at the world. Clearly there’s more to come.
With six unconventionally religious novels to date, this brave, meditative author has carved a unique niche in American literature.