This is, and has to be, a personal story. Years ago, as a boy in Maine, my Aunt Madeleine would give me a $10 gift certificate to Bookland for my birthday. I loved Bookland—it was about as big as a Waldenbooks or a B. Dalton, but it felt like it had every book in the world (this was before Borders or Barnes & Noble came to Maine). When I was 10, I'd read all the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books and everything by Terry Pratchett. A friend recommended Kurt Vonnegut, and I cut a swath through his entire body of work like only an awkward adolescent could. I needed something new, and I browsed the science-fiction section, where I picked up a $4.50 Ace paperback with a hideous, faux-marble cover called Only Begotten Daughter, by James Morrow.
I don't remember what, exactly, drew me to pick it up, but I can tell you why I bought it with my gift certificate. The blurbs sold me—two compared Morrow to Vonnegut—and I liked the premise, cheesily described in the back-cover text:
It could only happen in New Jersey. Call it a miracle. Call it the Second Coming. Call it a mishap at the sperm bank. But somehow, a baby daughter was born to the virgin Murray Katz, and her name is Julie. She can heal the blind, raise the dead, and generate lots of publicity. In fact, the poor girl needs a break, even if it means a vacation in Hell (which is unseasonably warm). So what did you expect? It ain't easy being the Daughter of God...
To someone raised Catholic who never had a devout moment in his short life, this was quite possibly the Most Appealing Book in the World. I've lost count of how many times I've read Daughter, but I'm able to quote directly from the back cover because I still own the book—the only book I still own from my youth, including high-school yearbooks—and will continue to own it until abuse finally batters it into liquid form (it's about halfway there already). Through this book, I became a lifelong, rabid fan of the work of James Morrow.
Perhaps because it was my first, Daughter remains my favorite. There's so much packed in there—a hilarious satire on theology that concludes with a pretty sound alternative theory of what God would be like if God actually existed (hint: as in the "Footprints" poem, she's been with us all along). The characters are round and real. Murray lives in an Atlantic City lighthouse and, when he's not selling his semen for money, he works in a photo-processing shop, collecting material for a book that decodes the "undeciphered language" of snapshots called Hermeneutics of the Ordinary—"A lawyer photographs his teenage daughter: why the provocative low angle? A stock broker photographs his house: why does he stand so far away, why this hunger for context?" Daughter follows Julie's entire life, from her childhood hobby of wandering the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean (of course the Daughter of God can grow gills) through her sexual awakening (almost every Morrow book has at least one sex scene, and they are always hot), her temptation by the devil, her married life, and her torture at the hands of Billy Milk, a one-eyed televangelist. I finished the book in a state of bliss.
The next book I bought at Bookland, with my own money this time, was This Is the Way the World Ends, the story of a man who wants to buy his daughter a nuclear-war-proof suit. Through a series of awful circumstances including, but not limited to, nuclear war, he is one of the only surviving humans, put on trial as all humanity's proxy by a weird, alien tribunal. He is charged for the crime of planetary suicide and convicted for not being morally outraged enough to do anything about the impending Armageddon. Ends is well and truly a bleak book, about as dark as they come. Towing Jehovah was a return to form for Morrow: God's two-mile-long dead body is found in the ocean, and the Vatican hires a disgraced captain named Anthony van Horne (who is despondent after causing a horrible oil spill reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez) to deliver the body to a hidden tomb before the world notices the corpus dei and drives itself into riots of existential madness. Along the way, we discover that God's corpse tastes just like Chicken McNuggets.
Morrow's fiction isn't stridently anti- religious; rather, it's pro-idea. In his later works, he's removed himself from the theological realm to explore more human thoughts and actions, primarily genocide. The Last Witchfinder (a book explained by a book, as it happens—Witchfinder is narrated by Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica) is about early America's witch trials and the formation of our nation's moral character. The Philosopher's Apprentice is about a philosophy teacher paid to teach an amoral clone about ethics. His charge becomes a philosophical freak, quite literally at war with the world. Morrow's latest novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, uses Godzilla's rampages as a metaphor for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since Vonnegut's death, American fiction has felt incomplete; it lacks his sense of moral outrage at man's capability for atrocity. Morrow is the only author who comes close to Vonnegut's caliber. Like Vonnegut, Morrow shrouds his work in science fiction, but the real story is always man's infinite capacities for love and for evil. His fictions are little moral laboratories, testing ideas for their durability and usefulness. Not all of his stories are great, of course—Towing Jehovah kicks off a trilogy of books that simply doesn't feel as fresh as Morrow's other theological explorations, for instance—but I've never regretted reading any of them. Not every experiment can come to a satisfying conclusion, but every one is a step toward a revelation. In The Cat's Pajamas, Morrow's most recent collection of short stories, he wrote about dual Martian armies using New York City as a battlefield. A clever team of scientists, translating their language, determines that the aliens are arguing about the existence of God, which forces the scientists to create a piece of music—the universal language—roundly disproving the existence of a deity. It's called "Materialist Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Minor." I like to think that suite somehow sounds like Morrow's entire body of work.
Only Begotten Daughter found me at just the right time; it appealed to the sci-fi nerd in me, and it coaxed me into reading books that were beyond my provincial purview. It introduced me to ideas—not just religious concepts, but ideas like feminism and homosexuality—that I hadn't yet encountered. It pulled me out of the science-fiction aisle and pushed me all over Bookland, introducing me to Salman Rushdie and Richard Dawkins and Hans Küng. As a book lover and a bookseller, I've introduced his work to dozens of others, and I always feel a ridiculous pang of disappointment when his books aren't as life changing for the new reader as they were for me. As near as I can tell, Morrow is the greatest kind of American author. He's funny and profane, bighearted and brave, he never takes the same risk twice in his satire, and for some reason I can't explain, I've waited almost 20 years to express my love for his work. I always figured it would come gushing out in a gigantic, sloppy fan letter. Here it finally is.