By Austin Wright
302 pp., $22
At the dawn of American fiction, Charles Brockden Brown wrote a disturbing novel about a young man who murders his family under the influence of a ventriloquist's voice he mistakes for God. For all its contrivance, "Wieland" (1798) dramatically explores potential complications for a new republic loosed from religious and political authority to its own imagination.
As the 1993 tragedy at Waco, Texas, illustrated, the embers of religious zealotry are still smoldering in America, waiting for the right mixture of paranoia and isolation to burst into flame.
Last year John Updike concluded "In the Beauty of the Lilies," a novel about 20th-century American faith, with a fictionalized version of the David Koresh compound. But the book's detached point of view did little to push us beyond the alienating bafflement of watching the compound burn.
Austin Wright's new novel, "Disciples," is a welcome insight on fanatical revelations. The challenge of such a story is to bring the bizarre to ordinary readers without merely confirming our prejudices or excusing a fanatic's danger. Wright avoids both extremes by exploring the tendency toward idolatry in a range of relationships.
The novel opens with a rip in the contemplative life of Harry Field, a professor of the history of science, a debunker of religious frauds and charlatans. When his daughter's estranged lover asks to take his granddaughter to a park one day, Harry foolishly agrees and sets in motion a nervewracking confrontation with a reclusive millennial sect.
His frantic search for the kidnapped baby among a commune of lost souls clinging to their guru only confirms Harry's confidence in the supremacy of empirical science. But in his efforts to repress fears about his health, the novel suggests that his devotion to science is no less a form of faith than the fanatics' faith in a personal god.
The crisis inspires the latent heroism of David Leo, an academic protg, who hopes his risks in the backwoods will win the professor's favor and the mother's romantic attention. However, David, a sophisticated black man, finds himself humiliated by the racist zealots he confronts and then subtly excluded by the white friends he hoped to impress.
He alone eventually comes to understand that idolatry and the numbing reliance it generates are not restricted to isolated communes of fanatics.
At the center of this crisis is Miller, a defrocked minister who survived a brutal mugging and came to believe he could save those who confess he is God.
In an interview between Harry and this one-eyed deity, Miller explains his followers' devotion: "They are stripped of ambition, freed from self. They don't care for doctrine. They shrink from authority voices demanding them to choose, choose, choose. We give them shelter and leadership and relieve them from responsibility."
Wright's lifetime of scholarship on William Faulkner at the University of Cincinnati is evident in the novel's shifting points of view. The story comes to us in a series of private testimonies from characters on all sides of the crisis, from the mother who ignores everything but her baby, to a mentally retarded member of the Miller sect who falls prey to tragically contradictory influences.
The blinding self-righteousness of these characters sometimes creates terror reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's gothic stories. "Disciples" presents an extraordinary delineation of the causes and functions of fanatical devotion, but it also jolts us from the easy assumption that such tendencies are restricted to the alien world of fanatical groups.
* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.