Zurhellen’s debut is a collection of loosely linked monologues and stories (two of them previously published) in search of a story line.
It’s being touted as the story of a contemporary Messiah, and that may have been the author’s original intention. The chapters (or stories) have biblical titles; a possible Son of God is glimpsed at the end; Satan makes brief opening and closing statements. But these are fragments embedded in a hodgepodge of stories spanning close to 30 years (1983-2010). The first introduces Roxy, an alcoholic waitress, and her husband Dill, staying at a motel outside Bismarck, N.D. Dill, an ex-con, reveals he’s on the lam. Roxy finds a baby outside their door. Unable to conceive, she appropriates it, naming it Sam. After Dill shoots the alleged father dead, Roxy takes off with Sam in their stolen van. That’s too much action jammed into too small a space. Zurhellen next brings on a new set of characters in the small town of Nazareth, N.D., dominated by the veteran sheriff, Severo Rodriguez, a brutal and corrupt official and Zurhellen’s most successful characterization; but even this episode is marred by abrupt viewpoint switches (a recurrent problem) and a botched climax. Severo is set to burn down an illegal roadhouse, apparently with his older son inside, but we only learn the outcome much later. And so it goes: with each time shift, a mess of new characters, none of them developed. Roxy’s cousin Betsy has a miracle baby, Jan, who cures his father’s stroke. Sam is a miracle baby too, for Roxy stops drinking after “adopting” him. Yet mother and son never have a heart-to-heart, and it is the preacher Jan who dominates the final section, conducting river baptisms and dunking cousin Sam. Might one be the Messiah and the other his messenger? Don’t expect pat answers.A raw talent, not yet ready for prime time.