Of few days, and full of trouble ... and laughs

Advance publicity for Catherine Ryan Hyde's "Electric God" claims that it's a modern retelling of Job.

I should think that's hardly a selling point. After all, most country-western music is a modern retelling of Job, but that allusion doesn't sell records. (e.g. "My dog dieth, my truck breaketh, and my honey she leaveth me.")

Yes, Hyde has constructed her novel around biblical themes of tragedy and forgiveness, but "Electric God" is also one of the most entertaining novels I've read this year. Imagine if Fanny Flagg had written the Old Testament.

(The book won't appear in stores till later this fall when a movie based on Hyde's previous novel, "Pay It Forward," opens in theaters.)

At the start of "Electric God," Hayden Reese is having a pretty bad 50th birthday: He doesn't have a job. His family is gone. His girlfriend dumps him. And yes, his dog dies.

The baby opossum he finds by the highway is suddenly the most important thing in his miserable world. Something visceral is obviously working on Hayden. His need to care for helpless creatures is so strong that he breaks the vet's jaw when the opossum dies.

In fact, Hayden's temper has broken just about everything. Convinced God doesn't have the guts to show His face, over the years Hayden has beaten a variety of people close to death.

The sheriff, his only real friend, shakes his head: "Seems like you've had more than your fair share of trouble."

"Seems like," Hayden answers.

"Some'd say you bring a lot of it on yourself, though. There'd be those who might reason you're practically out there looking for all the trouble you can lay in store."

"I hope I never have to meet them and hear it for myself, then."

"Oh, they're all around you, Hayden. It's just, nobody's quite so sure of you as to say a thing like that to your face."

"You just did."

"I got you cuffed, though."

"Anybody can have a bad day."

In fact, Hayden's bad day has been going on for 15 years. The novel's middle section jumps back to 1971 when Hayden, his wife, and their little girl are enjoying a busy, happy life. They hardly have the riches of Job, but his wife is in medical school and

their daughter is at that age of almost unbelievable cuteness.

Then, in a moment of wrenching tragedy, their domestic bliss is derailed. Hyde's story-telling style, always brisk, can knock the wind out of you. In the wake of this accident, Hayden prays, but nobody answers. The complexity of his grief makes all that well-meaning advice about "getting on with it" sound cruel and silly. He questions a priest, but canned references to the unquestionable ways of God don't bring him any solace. "I have always hated the book of Job," he admits.

When the story jumps back further to Hayden's childhood, we discover that his anger has even deeper roots. He was raised by a brutal fundamentalist who should have heard the echo of Jacob and Esau in the way he cruelly favored one son over the other. Finally, a clever twist of the Cain and Abel story leaves Hayden hating himself for failing to save his self-destructive brother from the wrath of the "electric God."

Highlighting these biblical allusions, though, may give the wrong impression. There's nothing heavy handed or scriptural about this engaging novel. Hyde stays carefully out of the way, letting the characters' dialogue carry the story whenever possible. The effect is surprisingly charming, sad, and sweet. The ingredients of even her most sentimental moments are so pure they rarely seem manipulative.

The last section of the book brings us back to the present as Hayden completes his descent into the ash pit. During a shoving match with his girlfriend's husband, he runs up against an opponent he can't beat into submission. When he wakes up after a 10-week coma with a chest full of buckshot, he finally starts to consider God's rhetorical question to Jonah, "Doest thou well to be so angry?"

From this point on, his mental reconstruction is more painful than any physical therapy he has to endure. Having lived a life founded on anger and self-righteous hatred, Hayden finds himself limping uneasily toward forgiveness. No audible answers come from on high, but answers do slowly come.

Hyde has some nerve to reach back to such an ancient, existential myth while plunging forward with a sweet story like this one. But, of course, it takes guts to question that whirlwind.

Not to give anything away, but the Lord blessed the latter end of Hayden more than his beginning. When they're through with "Electric God," readers are likely to feel the same way.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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