THE FAITHFUL NARRATIVE OF A PASTOR'S DISAPPEARANCE; by Benjamin Anastas; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages; $24.
This is that rare novel that can get away with putting the ending at the beginning — meaning the strange disappearance of the Rev. Thomas Mosher, the young black pastor of the Pilgrims' Congregational Church in a fictional Massachusetts town beginning with W.
Although the pastor was basically a gentle man, he could exude fire from the pulpit, as he did in his esoteric final sermon, "The Shapes of Love," in which he argued that God "is an infinite sphere."
From the beginning, it is evident that Anastas' inspiration for Thomas is none other than the legendary Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan firebrand. When Thomas speaks, he sounds suspiciously like a modern version of the rigid and determined Edwards.
Once we read of the disappearance, we methodically learn of the events leading up to it by meeting several devoted members of the congregation — the most important being Bethany Caruso, a married mother of two, whose "smoldering good looks" propel her into a secret romance with the pastor.
A second one is Artemesia Angelis, a pious housewife who is obsessed with the Puritan dissident, Anne Hutchinson. Another is Margaret Howard, a matriarch of a successful real estate business. Still another is Bethany's unhappy husband, Bobby Caruso, who is thoroughly distressed with his wife's accelerating disinterest in him.
The writing style is unconventional and unquestionably unique, made up of lengthy sentences, punctuated by commas and multiple thoughts — but done in a pleasing literary style that often harks back to Puritan formalism. The carefully constructed sentences carry the reader irretrievably forward, immersing him or her deeply in the outcome.
The author's extensive reading in Edwards' writings and Puritan history results in an uncanny familiarity with both the early and modern culture of New England. In spite of the congregants' mostly enthusiastic acceptance of the gospel message, many have deep difficulties applying all moral, Godlike principles to their lives. In that sense, they closely resemble the Puritans of the 17th century. The modern American soul as depicted by Anastas has a strange but truly divided center.
In other words, the Puritans of yesteryear had just as many difficulties living righteous lives as modern-day Congregationalists.
Surprisingly, in spite of the known ending, the novel breathes steady suspense. Also, in spite of quite a lot of unhappiness unrelated to Thomas' disappearance, the story contains a healthy dose of humor. If some of the characters are irritating, they are always interesting.
In spite of her adulterous relationship, Bethany is a fascinating person, the most charismatic character in the book. The author often relies on scripture and religious language, yet the style never grows tiresome. This is the type of book that is best read slowly so that the brilliant use of language can be fully appreciated.
Anastas' gifts for description and characterization make this work a literary as well as a satirical masterpiece.