When I started this job, there was a note in the desk that advised never judge a book by its cover, but I've got to make an exception for "The Preservationist." The cover of David Maine's novel about Noah features an engraving of those paired animals strolling off to repopulate the world. But all those happy faunae are covered by a die-cut dust jacket of the flood that hides everything except the Ark. Only children's books or expensive greeting cards are supposed to get this treatment. The design, by St. Martin's Steve Snider, is just the sort of clever (and expensive) introduction this curious little novel deserves.
The story of Noah that I heard as a child was heavy on the Ark and the animals, particularly the dove's cameo appearance and the spectacular rainbow finale. God's wrathful drowning of almost everyone on the earth received considerably less emphasis, and I didn't come across Noah's drunken humiliation in front of his sons until I was a father myself.
Maine includes it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly, along with the snakes, the goats, and the elephants. There are any number of witty, sometimes beautiful touches here, extrapolated from the strange details of this ancient myth. Noah, for instance, must convince the giants who were "in the earth in those days" to help him gather enough wood and pitch, even while conceding their imminent doom. And much later, once the rain stops, he and his family must find some way to pass the time, month after month, on that "floating barnyard." (Waste management is a bigger problem than Genesis lets on.)
I can't say I was ever on the edge of my seat - Will the Ark float? Will humanity be saved? - but the real pleasure of this novel flows from its sensitive portrayal of how different members of a family respond to the patriarch's blaring faith.
Each short chapter, narrated by a different member of the clan, begins with a quotation from the Douay translation of 1582, which uses slightly different names than modern readers are accustomed to. Noe (Noah) is the only character who doesn't narrate his own story; Maine handles the ark-builder himself: "The wife pokes desultorily at a pot of stew hanging over a fire. It is late for supper: the others have eaten already and retired to the sleeping room. Noe squats against one of the rough limewashed walls and points at a terra cotta bowl. He's roughly 600 years old: words are unnecessary."
Noe's wife - peeved that no one knows her name - reacts to her husband's apocalyptic revelation with gruff resignation. She's put up with a lot, beginning with her brutal honeymoon (described here without any Old Testament euphemism).
Their three sons receive Noe's command to build an enormous boat in the desert with a range of responses that signal their temperaments. Where you might expect types and caricatures, Maine supplies young men of real complexity, sons who rise and fall on the tide of this ordeal in moving and troubling ways. Japheth, the youngest, never wants to leave his wife's bed. Sem, the oldest, treats Noe's word as gospel. And Cham, in the middle, believes he's the real brawn and brains behind their father's shipbuilding project.
The most interesting characters, though, are Noe's daughters-in-law, the young women drawn into this illustrious family from the far corners of the earth. Maine supplies them not only with exciting pasts - slavery, shipwreck, matriarchal cults - but surprisingly rich and subtle personalities that allow him to explore the complications that smart, curious women must have faced in ancient times (and not so ancient times).
The feminist theme here is clear. One daughter-in-law wonders if God might not be male and female, and she rejects with disgust the masculine fantasy of a wrathful creator. But we haven't entered "The Red Tent," Anita Diamant's blockbuster about Jacob's daughter, which captured every book club in America. Maine wears his feminism more lightly - in wry asides from an obedient wife or animal hunts pursued without complaint by Noe's daughters-in-law.
The novel's tone is tossed by the conflicting currents of this ancient myth, but Maine never sinks into any particular point of view. The story usually floats in the slightly abstract world of legend, but periodically takes on archaeological detail. One moment it rides a wave of religious satire; the next it comes to rest on a rock of faith. Slapstick - even scatological comedy - suddenly gives way to eddies of real tenderness. Noe's unwavering devotion to God's wisdom runs right up against his sons' devastating critique of His cruelty. Children's tales cut away to scenes of rough depravity. (Maine may think the global death sentence was a bit heavyhanded, but he doesn't want God's disgust to look entirely unjustified.)
Even in the small details, "The Preservationist" plays subtly with contradictory elements. For instance, on one hand, the author takes this old story literally, imagining a family of people who can "trace their ancestors back a thousand years to Adam himself, to Eden and the Fall." But on the other hand, during her long search for animals, one of the young wives notices a curious layering of sedimentary rock that future Creationists who believe in her family will have a difficult time explaining.
Maine's careful touch serves the story's most existential questions well, too. Once the rainbow appears, no one in this family can fathom the global catastrophe they've survived, but ultimately that problem is so big that it's easy to ignore. The tougher challenges are the smaller, common ones that have remained for all of us since the flood waters receded: How can faith survive the ebb of inspiration? How can siblings resist the temptation to compete for affection? How can the loss of a single person be more devastating than the destruction of the whole world?
In the end, it's not Noe or even Yahweh who gets the last word, but Mirn, the youngest daughter-in-law, once so silly, now so naturally profound. Reflecting on everything they've endured, she realizes how important and how difficult it already is to get the story right. It all comes down, she thinks, to the people's idea of God. Everything else flows from that, for good or ill.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.