The Illegitimate Son of God
01 Apr, 2011 - Kendall Ruth
Every religion needs its leader, and in Owen Egerton’s The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, it takes Harold Peeks, the “Most Improved Sales Analyst” for Promit Computers declaring his Messiah-hood at the company’s annual awards banquet to start Haroldism. But it takes a complete economic collapse and the destruction of the American Dream to seal Haroldism’s place as one of the great world religions.
The account of Haroldism’s early days is narrated by an older, end-of-the-road Blake Waterson. He begins with words that most have uttered under our breath at some point: “…I am not a godly man. In truth, God and I have never been on good terms. I’ve always suspected that perhaps God was hunting me. Not in a good way, not the shepherd searching for a lost sheep. More like a pissed off loan shark looking for payment.”
Harold is Egerton’s third work of fiction, and it is comedic irreverence, a true satirical commentary on American Christianity, if not religious idealism in general. Unlike so many works mocking the banality and ignorance of the religious, he tells a story that makes good fun of ritual while alluding to the greater truths so often missed by the devout. It has all the makings of a response to the question: What would it look like if Jesus came to America today instead of Israel 2,000 years ago– and was named Harold?
The narrative is from Blake Waterson’s perspective, a memoir of the devout, or a “Gospel” of sorts. He describes the “Son of God” as one who “carried a roll of pudge just above his belt. His hair was juvenile, slightly longer than a crew cut. Wally Cleaver all grown up.” In other words, Harold looks a lot like every other American you might see at an Applebee’s on a Sunday night– our version of “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.” (Isaiah 53:2). And yet, people start to follow Harold the way they followed Jesus, leaving everything to join him on a journey from the suburbs of Houston, to the Capital of Texas, Austin. They are a motley crew from all walks of life and ages, and Blake Waterson is among them as a Matthew, Luke, John, or Judas.
The name of Egerton’s Messiah is a play on the word “herald” – an official messenger bringing news, a sign that something new is about to happen. Harold Peeks’s “news” is the kind that gets you kicked out of cocktails parties and churches, while attracting the less preoccupied, the lost or longing of the rest of society.
Like any good Messiah Harold performs the miraculous, but they aren’t the kind of miracles we would expect. Then again, miracles never are. Waterson’s dead dog -– obviously and inconveniently stiff as a board in the living room during an evening with neighbors — comes back to life for a minute after Harold has managed to make the room unbearably tense by naming off statistics about the suffering in the world. It is as everybody is leaving, the night ruined, tears flowing, that the rigid, dead Pickles suddenly yelps with a bark when Waterson bumps the dog, then goes back to being dead. Was the miracle the dog’s small moment of resurrection or was it that Harold managed to show just what a shallow, absurd, and mundane existence the Watersons and their neighbors live? Through Blake Waterson’s own transformation the reader sees that one can laugh or cry or both, but there is indeed something lacking in those niceties with which we are far too numb. Harold has shaken them all from their own stiff deadness, but some will simply fall back to dead like Pickles.
Egerton used the “Harold,” a type of improvisation used in comedic theater– another realm in which Egerton has quite a successful history– in his first novel Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. There are elements within the structure of The Book of Harold that hint at this comedic form even if Egerton was not consciously writing it as such. He has placed momentary pauses titled “An Introduction to Haroldism,” where in the reader is given a snippet of the liturgy behind the religion. These are much like pages from a Book of Common Prayer or an order of worship, but they are comedic pauses, a reminder to the reader that often the things that are taken seriously are most deserving of laughter.
As a whole The Book of Harold is a brilliant response to Wendell Berry’s words: “By taking oneself too seriously one is prevented from being serious enough.” For anyone who spends time among the religiously serious – those that often take themselves too seriously – it is clear that Egerton knows where to make fun of their kin while hinting at the stuff that deserves being serious enough. It is rare to find rich, balanced satire – the kind that makes you laugh while making you think – but Harold is one of these gems.
In the dedication, Egerton says of a friend that he was “scarred by faith and a golf cart.” There is hardly a soul on this planet who won’t be scarred by faith sooner or later. And in the more mishap-laden, laughable side of life, most have had their version of being scarred by something so comical as a golf cart. In essence, Egerton’s dedication is to every man and woman making a go of it in this world.