If someone came up to you on the street and told you that he was Jesus, would you believe him or would you think he escaped from the closest locked psychiatric ward? Just how would we recognize the second coming of the Messiah in this very secular day and age? And assuming this person really was Jesus, what all would you do for Him if He asked? These sound like very philosophical, religious questions, and of course they are, but they are the fascinating questions at the heart of Frank Turner Hollon's novel The Book of Neil.
Neil is an unhappy guy. His wife and daughter think he's a lousy provider because they can't afford all the material things they want. They have nothing but scorn for him and clearly have zero finer feelings (love, affection, etc.) towards the poor guy. And he really wants to make them happy, give them what they want, in hopes that they will love him again (although readers are pretty sure there's never been any real emotion beyond greed on their parts). This is where Jesus comes in. He's come back and been trying to get noticed for years but the only notice he's gotten has been as another mentally ill street preacher or a kook.
So when he meets Neil on the local country club golf course (Neil can't afford to join despite his wife and daughter's desire to do so), he tosses out the insane idea of Neil being his accomplice in robbing a local bank. It's no wonder people think he's not quite sane, right? But Neil is certain that this in fact Jesus and that there is a legitimate and understandable reason behind the request. The deal will be that Jesus will get the publicity after he's arrested and Neil will get away with the much coveted money. And surprisingly, this in fact works and the book changes narration to include all the people that Jesus touches: the police chief whose only son died as a child, the atheist reporter from the Times who is only covering this because of the intense interest in the "Jesus Bandit," the bank teller who was held up, a mother who believes that this unidentifiable man could be her long since disappeared mentally ill son, and the devout President of the United States.
Each of the narrators is grappling with his or her own life, looking for direction, searching both internally and externally to make sense of life and their particular outlooks on it. While each of the characters is given a situation that would make him or her more willing to believe or disbelieve the word of Jesus, if that is who he is, they are not quite as fleshed out as they could have been to make their tales and their takes on the situation more compelling. The plot itself runs along at a good pace but the overall depth is missing. And there are many questions that remain unanswered here. Perhaps that's intentional as faith itself is certainly a set of conventionally unanswerable questions but in the context of the novel, this lack of textual certainty works against the premise. The characters have all decided if this is really Jesus but the reader, at least this reader, is left uncertain. Despite the flaws, it is thought provoking about our very secular and material way of life and the mystery of belief.
Thanks to Meryl Zegarek PR for sending me a copy of this book for review.