Nazareth, North Dakota

  • Tommy Zurhellen
  • Atticus Books
  • 212 pp.

Joy-riding on back roads in a modern retelling of a familiar story from the Gospels.

Reviewed by Laura Kart Noell

Is the Second Coming imminent? If it were, where would it happen? When would it happen? How would we know that it was the real thing, not just another claim by another false prophet? Given human blindness and frailty, would events play out any differently than they did the first time? In his first novel Nazareth, North Dakota, Tommy Zurhellen provides his own entertaining and slightly manic answers to those questions.

Set in small-town, hardscrabble North Dakota from 1983 until an indeterminate present about 30 years later, Zurhellen’s story begins with an Annunciation, a birth and a sojourn in Cairo, Illinois. Like the Bible, Zurhellen’s story is an olio of little books with various speakers, roughly following the chronology of the early life of Jesus. One is a prophetic book. Of course, the Evil One makes his appearance, and, as typical, does his best to steal the show. In fact, it is he who narrates the first book, “The Annunciation.”  He knows “a child’s about to be born,” and he’s determined “to change the story” — “Hell if I’m going to be the one left here alone while everybody else is shown the way to paradise.”

Of course, the outcome of this story is up to Zurhellen, who, like any narrator of a traditional tale, follows the well-known outline, emphasizing some parts, ignoring others and adding details and characters. In his version, the plot develops through the crisscrossing fates of two families. The more familiar story follows the fortunes of one Roxy Rebecca Boone, who finds herself, under remarkable circumstances, the mother of a notably self-possessed baby boy. The other involves the family of Severo Rodriguez, the Herod-like corrupt sheriff who rules over Nazareth, and his sons Felipe and Anton.

In the second book, “Song of Mary,” Roxy Boone is on the lam from Nazareth when she becomes a mother. She names her boy Sam, her mother is named Annie, and a carpenter named Joe Davidson figures large in her life. The domestic details of life during the sojourn in Cairo deepen the story and round out the characters. A little girl is obsessed with caterpillars. Roxy makes an elaborate Halloween costume to please a sulky child.  Two schoolboys have an assignment to build a diorama depicting the Roman Empire. Roxy has long phone conversations with her cousin Betsy in Nazareth. Married to a preacher named Zekariah, Betsy natters on about her own “Miracle Baby,” whom she and Zekariah name Jan. Later, Roxy returns to Nazareth with Sam, who becomes friends with Jan and is baptized by him. Part of the fun of reading a story like this lies in recognizing the parallels with the traditional story, and part of the pleasure is found in the innovations.

The almost equal attention paid to the Rodriquez family enriches and complicates the tale. Zurhellen sympathizes with Severo Rodriguez and his sons, despite or perhaps because of their weakness and corruption. While their precise relationship to the biker embodiment of Evil, who roars in and out of town at key moments, is never spelled out, they are clearly linked to him. In some circumstances they seem to be agents of pure evil; in others, they just seem painfully, weakly human, buffeted by their competing, uncontrollable lusts. Zurhellen’s writing comes alive when he describes the physical suffering of the Rodriguez men. The alcoholic Severo feels his gut “shredded with pain.” Anton, a fat boy turned into a fat man, “wrestled his body” out of his car.

Zurhellen gets credit for avoiding the thinly veiled first-person narrative of so many first novels. Taking on the story told in the Gospels is an audacious leap for a first-timer, and the writing reveals some flaws common to initiates. The secondary characters liven up the show, but then Zurhellen gives one of them authorial omniscience, attributing thoughts to him more likely to be the writer’s thoughts about his technique than the thoughts of a cop in a dead-end North Dakota town. Sent to make an arrest, the cop feels “like a minor character in a book or a movie, the guy who you see just long enough to bring in the soup or answer the telephone before the real characters, the real people, come on.” In some parts of the narrative, the language is forced and awkward.

In the opening book, the Devil speaks in a kind of country dialect, dropping “ain’t” all over the place, but later he speaks and thinks in generic English. The preacher Zeke describes “people running around like chickens with their feet cut off,” and Severo is troubled by a fortune-teller’s prediction that “really grated on his mind.” Pop culture details meant to ground the story can be distracting. A man’s gait reminds Roxy “of a Fisher-Price weeble when he walks, weaving back and forth with the slow list of a comfortable rocking chair,” and she indulges in a complicated exegesis of An Officer and a Gentleman that is supposed to illuminate her character but shifts the focus to the characters in a movie that the reader has probably not seen “exactly thirteen-and-one-half times” as Roxy has. Zurhellen also seems to have a fondness for acronyms like “backdoor JW’s” and “HAART cocktails” that require a detour through Google.

In other more rewarding detours through and around Nazareth, North Dakota, Zurhellen takes the reader joy riding — in beat-up pick-up trucks and run-down vans and on marauding motorcycles — into familiar and surprising territory, where an elephant gone AWOL from a third-rate traveling circus turns out to be more than a plot twist and where an old tale retold reminds us that the divine spark may yet be found under the most pedestrian of circumstances: at county fairs, in seedy motels, trailer parks and barren landscapes.

Laura Kart Noell is a bibliophile, a student of world myth and a former member of the English faculty at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught, by conservative estimate, somewhere between seven and eight thousand students.

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