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on June 26, 2011
The last time I read about Jack Kassel, he was a closeted atheist philosopher at St. Bernadette's, a pomo Catholic college on the plains of Minnesota - and I was a high school student. Jack's life began a spiral into absurdity after he agreed to sponsor a student humanist group and discovered a secret about the school's charismatic new priest. The intervening years (and my entry into academia) have only increased my appreciation for McGowan's first novel.

Published almost a decade after Calling Bernadette's Bluff, Good Thunder picks up only three days after the climactic events ending the previous book. Cautioned by Good Thunder's preface, I dutifully reread the first novel. It cannot be over-emphasized: This sequel assumes familiarity with the characters and events of CBB. Conversely, CBB stands alone. Read it first. If you like it, you will probably enjoy Good Thunder. Without it, you'll be lost after a few pages.

Without ruining the previous book (the Amazon synopsis already has enough spoilers), let me say that Good Thunder takes Jack - and readers - further down the rabbit hole. At St. Bernadette's, Jack had to deal with a host of unusual characters: His professional life was plagued by indecisive university administration, suspicious nuns, and cynical fellow faculty. His burgeoning humanist club was threatened with hostile takeover by the campus Satanists. At home, tension mounted regarding his son's religious education. If CBB was a fun pro-secular farce, Good Thunder cranks the absurd-o-meter to eleven. Jack watches the birth of a new Christian creed (with credulous converts experiencing hilarious pareidolia) and is inducted into a counter-cultural insurgency plotting to fix American irrationality with memes. (Why's that Homeland Security van parked over there?) All the while, he is plagued by seemingly-prescient dreams featuring his deceased friend (and maybe-Messiah) Scott.

Despite the increased (and occasionally distracting) zaniness, the long departure from fiction allowed McGowan to reflect on the serious themes in CBB. The conflict between Jack and his in-laws over his son's religious education is ongoing, and we see Jack's struggle to be a good parent while balancing his freethought ideals and his wife's wishes for their child. Jack's discussions with his son about religion and mortality - and the way he navigates conflicting parenting advice - benefited from McGowan's writing on secular parenting (e.g., Parenting Beyond Belief) during his fiction hiatus.

Overall, Good Thunder is a fun return to the Minnesota prairie-land and its wacky inhabitants. By turns existentially serious and absurd, its a nice book to curl up with when life is stressful. After all, it could be worse: You could be in Jack Kassel's shoes.
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