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A devilish journey through Christendom

Carla Kaplan teaches at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is "Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters."

In his sixth novel, cultural historian Theodore Roszak takes on the religious right, “the Lord’s sour-pussed people,” as the novel’s main character describes them. “The Devil and Daniel Silverman” extends a Roszak tradition of rewriting classics, including Roszak’s best novel, “The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” retold from the fiancee’s perspective. Here Roszak parodies both “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by creating a satiric journey through America’s Bible Belt, a wasteland of stringent rules and “savage faith.”

Known for his impassioned defense of social dissidents in nonfiction works such as “The Making of a Counter Culture,” Roszak’s new novel invites its reader to reclaim a liberal tradition of kindness. His lifelong “monster watch,” a critical perspective that led to warnings about the bomb, genetic engineering, computers and “the whole of industrial civilization,” has now pointed Roszak to intolerance as the most frightening monster of all. This spirited sendup of Daniel Silverman’s misadventures in Christendom invites us to laugh at pious narrow-mindedness but also reminds us never to underestimate the harm such self-righteousness can do.

The title character of “The Devil and Daniel Silverman” is a gay, unsuccessful, middle-age Jewish novelist living in San Francisco who is suddenly offered a $12,000 honorarium to give the annual address on “Religious Humanism” to the Free Reformed Evangelical Brethren in Christ of North Fork, Minn. The Free Reformed Evangelical Brethren (Roszak’s fictional sect) is so far to the right that its followers see the Moral Majority as being “in the grip of political correctness.”

But given a literary agent more interested in his own celebrity than his clients’ success and a publishing world indifferent to anything but fast-selling novels that can be cranked out according to computer formulas, Silverman finds that $12,000 and a prestigious lecturer’s title is nothing to sniff at. In spite of his own reservations, not to mention those of his anxious lover Marty, Silverman agrees to visit the fictional Faith College. “In and out,” he promises Marty, the visit will be “in and out.”

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Of course things don’t quite work out that way. In one of the novel’s many allusions to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Silverman finds himself unable to give his prepared speech at the crucial moment. As he stands before “the largest audience he had addressed in years,” he is overwhelmed by conversations he’s had that afternoon with faculty who deny the Holocaust. In place of his “uplifting” address on humanism, Silverman delivers a brief oration on what he considers the most poignant text in Jewish literary history: the concentration camp number B742365 tattooed on his Aunt Naomi’s arm.

This impromptu switch to “not something written by Jews but written on Jews” is Silverman’s defense of truth. Unable to stop being truthful once he gets going, however, Silverman also commits the unfortunate error of “coming out” on stage, enraging Faith College’s faithful. When Silverman is trapped by a sudden winter whiteout, his hopes for “in and out” are dashed. Gay, Jewish, pro-choice, liberal Daniel Silverman finds himself without cell phone, Starbucks or ally, surrounded by massive banners with the letters “JIW” for “Jesus Is Watching.”

Here the plot turns melodramatic as the college’s antagonism toward its infidel-homo-humanist becomes hyperbolically savage, especially in the form of groundskeeper Axel Hask, a monstrous abortion clinic bomber who insists that Silverman-the-liberal is a baby killer and therefore should die. Thanks to the intervention of deus ex machina state troopers, our hero not only prevails against lunatic groundskeepers, bloodthirsty deans and murderous undergraduates, but he even rescues the school’s three closeted gays.

Silverman’s heroics are all the funnier because he is such an unlikely hero. Silverman is self-indulgent, whiny, judgmental, affected, a gossip, a bit of a nudnik, painfully self-conscious and not a little paranoid. He is also sentimental. Where Daniel Webster, the hero Roszak parodies, protects New Hampshire with Paul Bunyanesque stature and a bottomless will toward rationality, Silverman bumbles his way into heroism through sentiment, including his sentimental attachment to an imaginary world called “Bookville,” a place where people care about ideas and where writers “used quills and pens and wrote by candlelight.” Bookville is Silverman’s moral compass and his private, highly literary utopian world.

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Silly? Sure. But silly, Roszak suggests, is better than mean. Sentimentality, even silly sentimentality, at least derives from values. And in a valueless society, holding to values is itself a form of dissent. So, of course, is being openly gay. Making the new Daniel Webster gay is one of the book’s most brilliant (and hilarious) gestures of support for what we might call the politics of joy, for spirit and “civilized values” in their battle against conformity and fear. Our sometimes hapless hero combats evil not only for Aunt Naomi and her suffering but also on behalf of pleasure, playfulness and humor.

But Silverman is not above the things he battles. Just as Daniel Webster can’t defeat the devil until he recognizes “it was his own anger and horror that burned in their eyes; and he’d have to wipe that out or the case was lost,” so Silverman’s task is to recognize the humanity of the inhumane residents of Faith College. To do this, Silverman must embrace his Inner Humanist.

Silverman’s audience has no idea what a talk on “Religious Humanism” might encompass. But neither, as it turns out, does Silverman. Until he is invited to speak as a humanist, Silverman himself doesn’t realize he is one. The novel’s epigraph, from German Jewish humanist Max Born, sums up why, for Roszak, humanism can’t be dismissed: “The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.” Only learning what he does not know can rescue Silverman from this lost world in which everyone claims to have all the answers.

If Roszak’s writing sometimes overstates and repeats to make sure that we get the joke, such earnestness can perhaps be counterbalanced by the urgency that drives the novel’s dark comedy. Rather than risk the sometimes petty judgments of mean-spirited, nitpicky reviewers, an earnest Roszak grades his own novel via a fictional review of Silverman’s fictitious new novel: “a timely plea for tolerance, compassion, and joie de vivre.” Here, as in many of the barely disguised parodic self-references that pepper the novel and offer some of its comic relief, Roszak gets his own project’s importance just right. One can only wish, knowing it could never happen, that “The Devil and Daniel Silverman” could be assigned reading in all the Faith Colleges that exist across the country. *

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