||April 30, 2007
The Angel of Death emerges from a washing machine to tell seminary graduate Andrew Benoit, that the town of Erasmus will be destroyed if he can't help them find faith in the novel named Best of 2007 by Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.
Barnes & Noble.com
When fresh seminary graduate, Andrew Benoit, is sent to the tiny parish of Erasmus, he soon encounters the Angel of Death who threatens to destroy the town. What ensues is both deadly fun and deadly serious.
Along the way, Andrew follows many paths of inquiry, discovering the history of the American cinema, encounters with medieval saints, fear of the apocalypse, the Angel of Death, and conversations with a curious group of mystics who meet at the Instant Coffee Cup.
This modern-day Jonah tries desperately to save a small town only to discover that he himself is the one who needs saving.
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In Which I am Commissioned
I have to pick someone,” he said. “They get one last chance. I get to call one prophet.” Death’s voice became very serious. “You’re the one I selected.”
“Is this because I went to seminary?”
“No, Andrew. That was just part of your path.” He paused. “Actually I picked many. But,” he said as he pointed to the empty Laundromat, “you are the only one to show up.”
Great, I thought. A dying man gets a last phone call and I’m it. Thanks Death. Publishers Clearing House randomly selects Mary Beth Finster from East Albatross, Kansas to win a million dollars and what do I get? Death and the promise of unemployment.
“I never get picked for anything.”
“No, Andrew. You never get picked for what you think you should have. That is different.”
“But I’m not a prophet,” I said. ”I mean, I really don’t think I have the proper training.”
I’d been called many things in my life, some of which I would rather not see in print so I will let you ascribe your own colorful and descriptive adjectives and nouns. Prophet had never been thrown out in any kind of verbal exchange. There are no more prophets, I thought, but even on the remote chance that there were, I was certain I was not one.
“Anyone can be a prophet,” Death replied.
Cross the prophet Job with It's a Wonderful Life and you get this award-winning poet's first-person debut novel, rife with strangeness and humor. When the angel of death climbs out of a broken washing machine and announces that the town of Erasmus is about to be destroyed, Andrew Benoit, a pastor fresh out of seminary, only has a week to save it. Erasmus turns out to be a "Potterville" where a Mrs. Primrose Davenport owns almost everything and money is God. A small band of mystics named for movie stars gather at the mystical hot spot The Instant Coffee Cup (run by the wryly named John Luther Zwingli) and hold out hope. But, as Cleaver puns, Erasmus is interested in "profit," not a "prophet." What follows is a down-the-rabbit-hole mishmash of images; the Velveteen Rabbit, Homer Simpson, Mae West, and a Knight Templar all contribute their own bits of wisdom for Andrew. There are plenty of nods to Christian history, both overt and subtle, including a scene with several saints who urge Benoit to find "the truth within" and give it a voice. But is it the town that really needs saving? Or is it something—or someone—else? This bizarre, whimsical novel will charm and delight some readers and perplex others.
This offbeat first novel tells the story of seminary graduate Andrew Benoit, who expects to obtain a position at a prestigious parish but winds up in Erasmus, a small, inconsequential village where he meets the Angel of Death pulling himself out of a washing machine. Andrew wryly notes, "Actually I wasn't really expecting to meet the Angel of Death at all. Not this soon. Not this place." The Angel predicts doom for the little town, and Andrew's quest to save Erasmus is marked by strange twists, turns, and encounters with such colorful characters as the group of mystics who meet at the local coffee shop. Readers looking for something fresh and a little different from the usual heavyhanded fare in spiritual fiction will enjoy this slim novel. Highly recommended.
I have heard it remarked by commentators such as Wendell Berry that small towns suffer when it comes to clergy assignments in churches. I suppose that should come as no surprise: Why settle for nickels and dimes ministering in rural areas when a clergyperson can shoot for a six-figure salary and a lot of administering in a big urban church?
In Saving Erasmus, his brief and breezy first novel, Steven Cleaver tells the story of Andrew Benoit, a recent seminary graduate facing a choice between a big-city assignment and something that feels like banishment to a small town. True to the idea of “call,” like a modern-day Jonah, Andrew finds himself in the small town of Erasmus facing a daunting first assignment: Heed your call to be a prophet and save the town immediately, for the Angel of Death is set to destroy the faithless place in one week.
Andrew knows this is the case because the Angel of Death informed him of the fact, personally, just as Andrew reached the edge of town. Once there, he finds the town, including the church, under the control of the ultra-capitalistic Mrs. Primrose Davenport, who owns everything—and everyone—except for The Instant Coffee Cup, the local coffee shop that serves only, well, instant (one can surmise that author Cleaver has seen one too many Starbucks encroach upon his New York City turf), and is overseen by one John Luther Zwingli and a group of mystics who go by names like Harpo, Lucy, and Lou Costello. His work cut out for him, Andrew attempts to warn the town and save it despite Mrs. Davenport’s efforts to maintain the status quo.
The art of Saving Erasmus is executed by way of broad emotional and comic strokes. Chock full of literary, historical, and religious allusions, the novel will appeal to readers with a quirky relationship to Christian life and history. The embedded critique of Mrs. Davenport’s manner of governance is effective and could be a helpful tool in discussions of the way the world works in relation to the biblical vision of forgiveness and jubilee. Mrs. Davenport’s transformation, however, happens off in the wings, as it were, diminishing the potential for dramatic impact.
Still, Saving Erasmus is a solid effort that brings a hip, contemporary style to a solidly informed Christian vision. Already an award-winning poet, Steven Cleaver’s first novel offers the hope of more good work to come. And that will be good news.
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