The major source of inspiration for Benjamin Anastas' second novel, "The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance," was a firebrand Puritan minister of the 18th Century — Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards is well-known for having given a memorable sermon, "A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, and Neighboring Towns and Villages," in 1737 . . . when he was only 34 years old.
Recognizing the contrast between old New England and contemporary New England, the clash between spirituality and materialism, Anastas skillfully weaves old with new in both language and culture. It was Edwards' narrative that caught the author's interest.
"I knew I wanted to write a novel in the New England literary tradition, going back to the 17th Century," Anastas said during a phone interview with the Deseret News from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "When I encountered Jonathan Edwards, the words jumped off the page. Edwards was an incredibly ambitious thinker and writer. He seems a lonely, brilliant figure, not always sympathetic. I tried to endow Thomas Mosher (the minister in his novel) with some of his characteristics."
Anastas insists he was not previously "deep in religion or religious studies.
"My parents always had a reasonable, intellectual attitude, and I was always skeptical about that. I read everything I could, including the Bible, and went to church as much as I could. I don't always understand what Edwards is getting at, but I tried to emulate his style. The book took three years from conception to completion, and I was reading the whole time."
Anastas was interested in Edwards' references to "harvests of troubled souls," and his concerns about the young, who were "insensible to the things of religion." Edwards accused them of "night-walking," visiting the local taverns and getting together in "conventions of both sexes . . . which they called 'frolics.' " Edwards said the youth of Northampton were staying out too late and "comported themselves indecently at Sunday service — if they came at all."
Eventually, Edwards' work took hold and "a glorious alteration" took place in the town, with many people "re-clothing themselves in Christ." Allegedly, these people were never "so full of love, nor so full of joy — and yet so full of distress."
Anastas tries to capture a fictional New England town in "spiritual turmoil" in his novel about a pastor's disappearance — except that this one begins 250 years later, during the Bill Clinton administration. Anastas attempts to capture a new society that has held onto its Puritan legacy. "There have been enormous changes in the liturgy. It was a patriarchy in Edwards' day, whereas now, it's a matriarchy. Many mainline Protestants have watered down their message to appeal to the most people. If a Lutheran is a Methodist is a Congregationalist, maybe there is no reason to go to church at all!"
Anastas explained his novel as "a modern story in a Puritan context, competing traditions and ideals. I knew I had to confront race, because New England is profoundly different in race than it was in the 17th Century. It isn't all white any more. I wasn't entirely sure the pastor would be black, but since he is, it's unavoidable to confront racial problems."
The author has written this novel in a unique, stream-of-consciousness series of very long sentences. "The style works for this book, but I'm not planning to make it my signature. I tried to create a swirl of experience and characters. It started with the first sentence — the longest I ever wrote. I've rewritten it numerous times since, but the essential structure is the same. The book is intended to be the town in microcosm."
Even though the pastor's disappearance is never resolved, Bethany Caruso, the married woman who falls in love with him, experiences an awakening of her own soul. "I don't describe the way the characters look," said Anastas. "I leave that to the reader. Once I publish a book, it's not mine anymore. Thomas Mosher is the figurehead of the church. People define themselves by the way they relate to him. Bethany thought Thomas would come and meet her. Anyone who has someone — or a relationship larger than themselves — can relate."
Anastas, 32, who was born in Gloucester, Mass., wrote his first work of fiction when he was 17. He now has a stack of unpublished manuscripts that reach to his waist. "I was never a diligent student, but I've always been diligent about writing."
He graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in English, then took a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Following graduation, he moved to Brooklyn. "I love the feel of the big city, and I have a wonderful girlfriend."
Even though he writes full time, "There are so many distractions, so many pauses built into the whole creative process, that it's just hard work."
Anastas' first published novel, "An Underachiever's Diary," was set in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard. Anastas calls it "a dark and mournful take on the liberal elite. Yet it is a comic monologue, written as a polemic against the memoir. It tells the story of William, a low achiever, and Claude, a high achiever."
His current project is "loosely based" on the experiences of his maternal grandfather who came to the United States from Prague. "I figure out the characters, their history, then establish an idiom in which to write it. Then, I let it take me. I do tons of revisions. I also write freelance pieces to pay the rent.
"I don't know if I will write 12 novels or 25 novels. I lay awake sometimes worrying about doing things wrong. The writing gets harder as your standard gets higher. But I feel comfortable about my decision to be a writer."
By the way, Anastas thinks more and more people ought to read Jonathan Edwards . . . "for pleasure."