Casper, an albino ex-preacher who used to tour with a road show under the name Reverend America, wanders through a United States that barely exists anymore in modern fiction. It's a country where losers travel from shitty town to shitty town by Greyhound bus, smoking cigarettes and reading the Weekly World News and "girlie magazines" while worrying about the state of their souls. It's practically as if the internet or, hell, cable television doesn't exist in Reverend America (Dark Coast Press, $16.95)—it's earthy, grimy, and proud of its own flabby imperfections, like a '70s exploitation film set to paper. There was a time when fictional men and women grew all their hair as long as they could and wondered, earnestly, about what America meant; Reverend America tries to answer those big, vague questions.
Kris Saknussemm, the author of Reverend America, isn't on some kind of cutesy nostalgia kick. His other novels, especially the dystopian Zanesville, tackled the same ideas, but Reverend America feels more complete, a thesis statement on old-fashioned salvation from the days before politics reared up and ate religion whole. Casper wanders around, noting that mind-fucking impossibilities like restaurant signs promising "Catfish Chicken" are "what America [is] so good at." Though he's basically defrocked, Casper earnestly tries to help others he meets on the way, such as a woman who lost her child to illness and has been carrying a broken doll around for three years to ease her anguish. First he fixes the doll, then he throws it under the wheels of a Greyhound, and then, as she's sobbing over the loss of her surrogate child, he administers some sappy, perfect advice:
"All right. This is what you do," he said, taking out a $10 bill. "You go home, and on the way you buy yourself some ice cream—I recommend rocky road. Then you run yourself a hot bath at home and watch an old movie with your ice cream. It won't cure your sadness—but it will help. And tomorrow—tomorrow may be the new day that it should be. That it can be."
Soon, Casper has murdered a few men in self-defense, picked up a pregnant teenage prostitute, and embarked on a mission to get her somewhere safe before the baby's born, even as he reflects on his past as a young preacher. The book is full of florid passages, lengthy asides, and, like a road trip, a few boring stretches—but you can't get anywhere worthwhile without a few boring patches. Here's what Reverend America isn't about: It's not about a quirky loner learning how to feel again. It's not about a moment of epiphany that leaves you clean and shiny-new. It's not an arch satire of a megachurch pastor. Instead, it's a novel that wonders about how to live a decent life and whether the American Experiment was ever or could ever be a success.