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The Origin of the Brunists Paperback – March 10, 2015
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Originally published in 1966, The Origin of the Brunists was a sensational debut that won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel and instantly established Robert Coover's fictional mastery. Set in a small mid-American town, it begins with a coal-mine explosion that claims ninety-seven lives. Giovanni Bruno--hawk-faced, silent, some say deranged--is the only survivor. A lapsed Catholic given to peculiar visions, Bruno is adopted as a prophet by a group of secretive small-town mystics. "Exposed" by the town newspaper editor, the Brunist cult gains international notoriety and its ranks swell. As its members gather on the Mount of Redemption--above the site of the mine disaster--to await the apocalypse, and the fabric of the community begins to unravel, Robert Coover lays bare the madness of religious frenzy and the sometime greater madness of "normal" citizens. The Origin of the Brunists is vintage Coover-fearless, incisive, and brilliantly executed.
"A novel of intensity and conviction...[Coover] may become heir to Dreiser or Lewis.... He has splendid talent."--The New York Times Book Review
"A breathtaking masterpiece on any level you approach it."--Sol Yurick, author of An Island Death
"[The Origin of the Brunists] delivers the goods; it explodes on the reader...says what it has to say with rudeness, vigor, poetry and a headlong narrative momentum."--The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
Robert Coover has won fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Rea Award for the short story, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, among other honors. He has taught at Bard College, the University of Iowa, Princeton University and currently teaches electronic and experimental writing at Brown University. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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It’s the story of a mining town, with what seem like stereotypical middle American types — the miners, their wives, local heroes, local eccentrics, . . . But Coover goes deep with many of them, and when you go deep, the stereotypes fade. Everyone becomes unique and interesting in their own way.
He throws in some catalysts. A local hero moves back to town to run his own local newspaper. The central action of the story is a deadly mining explosion that kills many of the town’s longtime stalwart characters and disrupts the town’s core engine. The economic, social, and even religious life of the community is thrown into uncertainty. All of this seeds the Brunist cult that grows around one of the survivors of the mine explosion.
A clearly damaged, odd-to-begin-with character, Giovanni Bruno, becomes the focal point of the town’s way of dealing with its disrupted life. Doing little more than being enigmatic, Bruno becomes a Christ-like figure, with a growing following hanging on his few words. Bruno is an influence the body of the town has to incorporate or reject somehow.
The returning local hero, Miller, throws gasoline on the fire by infiltrating the cult, exposing its internals to a side of the town only too ready to take up pitchforks and torches against it. It just looks like a disaster from the get-go — a dinner of oatmeal, steak, and tapioca. And, just for kicks, Miller is as motivated by his twin longings for Bruno’s unfortunate sister Marcella and for Happy Bottom, a nurse with way more going on than meets the eye (saying more might spoil the story), as he is by the story of the cult itself.
The story is based on a real mining disaster in West Frankfort, Illinois in 1951. Coover apparently was aware of the explosion at the time that it happened, and he was aware of some characteristic events, including the notable survival of one miner.
If you’re looking for light and airy, keep looking. If you’re looking for a fairly dark, sometimes farcical, and, if you are willing to put in the effort, revealing look at middle America, go for it. The story is full, maybe even over-full, of interesting and detailed characters, all in a fascinating, conflicting stew.