Friday, May 20, 2011

Gen ‘X’ Messiah

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
“Nazareth, North Dakota” is Tommy Zurhellen’s first novel that spans from 1980 to present day, and depicts the lives of common people in the barren northern mid-west. The story takes a biblical spin on the lifestyles of the lower middle class American community, which invites plenty of social and political comparisons while also allowing the author fodder for clever wordplay.
The novel follows Roxy, a down on her luck ex-waitress whose poor taste in men is nearly as tragic as her inability to meet a decent man. She finds herself in Cairo, Illinois, after a baby is dropped into her care, and another loser boyfriend runs off with legal problems. Her journey with this mysterious baby, Sam, leads her to Joe, a hard working and honest carpenter.
Back in North Dakota, her family manages through life by maneuvering around corrupt town police officer Severo Rodriguez. His business in illegal stills and penchant for throwing Molotov cocktails into outsiders’ vehicles reveal how badly this town is in need of salvation. Roxy’s nephew, Jan, preaches his evangelical shtick as his mother swore he was a miracle child. As time moves along, the real miracle child presents himself above false prophets, as the oldest man in the world (who also lives in Nazareth) predicted would happen.
Written in tight prose with little flash or pretense, “Nazareth, North Dakota” is like reading James Joyce’s “Dubliners” or Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine.” Even if the biblical parallels are lost on the reader, the characters are interesting at how they manage through the doldrums of day to day life. As the novel seems to settle into this cozy study of small town dynamics, we see Sam develop into an interesting, misunderstood, and rebellious youth who just might change the world.
Among the interesting scenes with Sam’s transformation are a debate he has with an Ethics professor, although only this debate’s aftermath is depicted, and his friendship with Daylene Hooker. Daylene’s nickname “prostitute” hearkens readers back to Christ’s befriending of Mary Magdalene, showing one way in which Zurhellen weaves ancient characters into new ones.
Each chapter is divided like a short story, and has a date with the title. The book only runs a little over two hundred pages, and like the testaments depicting the life of Christ, it leaves large portions of time unaccounted for.
The first one hundred pages are interesting and read well, but some readers might be lost on the point for such detailed accounts of so many villagers. Eventually these eccentric stories tie into a finely woven tapestry of modern legend. To the unsuspecting reader, the leaps in time are also jarring at first. But, once the reader realizes the timeline spans in a short space, like the Bible, the story moves along smoothly.
“Nazareth, North Dakota” is a strange and fascinating trip, and an astute retelling of the story of all stories. Born in New York City, Zurhellen convincingly portrays not only small town life, but that of mid-western life with great fluency. Readers who are weary of the run of the mill bestseller, or are looking for a good story that is written well, should look for this title.
Pub Date: April 15, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-9845105-6-6. Page count: 212pp. Publisher: Atticus Books.
Photo caption: (Courtesy book cover image of “Nazareth, North Dakota”)