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The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover
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The Origin of the Brunists (1966)

by Robert Coover

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The Origin of the Brunists is a novel which uses bizarre events to illuminate the lives and ideals of commonplace people. It is set in the 1960s in the town of West Condon, somewhere in the American Midwest. West Condon is a blue collar town with a high proportion of Italian immigrants. Its chief source of livelihood is a single coal mine, Deepwater Number 9, but the coal industry is in decline, and so is the town. A few days after New Years, tragedy strikes: There is an explosion in the mine. Hundreds of panicked workers rush for the exits. Most make it out alive, but 98 are trapped. Days later, rescuers reach the trapped miners. All are dead from burns or asphyxiation but one, Giovanni Bruno, and he is comatose.

When Bruno regains consciousness, his first words are of having been saved by an apparition in the form of a white bird. His vision seems to coincide with that of another miner, a Nazarene minister, who left a cryptic dying message for his wife. A local mystic sees these visions as confirmation of spiritual messages she has received prophesying the end of the world. Before long, a cult is born which calls itself the Brunists. Within weeks the cult's existence becomes an issue which tears at the social fabric of West Condon.

Robert Coover tells this story through the eyes of a number of West Condon residents, but principally two: the skirt-chasing former athlete who now edits the town newspaper, and an aging mine foreman who fears he will never find work again if the mine doesn't reopen. The stress of the mine disaster and the cult seem to bring ordinary events into sharper focus: children rebel against their parents, teenagers clumsily explore sex, politicians and businessmen maneuver for power, ministers strive to control wavering congregations, husbands and wives have extramarital affairs, and gossip continuously feeds the fears, attitudes and prejudices of the community.

The Origin of the Brunists is an outstanding novel which illuminates the individual lives of its characters to produce an excellent composite portrait of an American small town. Yet at the same time it also examines the psychology of religious cults and movements and shows us America's media culture in its formative stages.

Robert Coover has just published a sequel to The Origin of the Brunists (48 years after the original!) titled The Brunist Day of Wrath. ( )
9 vote StevenTX | Apr 19, 2014 |
I loved this book. I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until March, so close on the heels of finishing the original novel, but well, I suppose I don't have much of a choice in the matter. As the book blurb on the back cover notes, The Origin of the Brunists won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel, but imho, it certainly doesn't read like a first novel.

At its heart, the book is an account of the rise of a religious cult and the resulting religious fervor coming on the heels of a terrible mine disaster, but really, that statement is way too simplistic. It begins with a prologue as the people in the cult, known as the Brunists, have gathered the day before the second coming on a hill they've named the Mount of Redemption. A terrible event occurs, one that goes on to find its way into the very legends, myths and art of the religion. This part is related by a new convert, who seems slightly confused. The rest of the novel reveals what happened leading up to that event and beyond, beginning with the disaster at the mine, an event which will ultimately leave an entire town and several lives in chaos.

I'm skipping most of the plot elements here, but you can read them in my blog discussion here.

With lots of humor interspersed throughout the book, this is one of the craziest novels I've ever read. Aside from the new religion, which imho isn't the real focus of this book but rather the centerpiece around which the characters react, the author really gets into small-town life and minds, the workings of power and politics, and how seemingly "normal" people can get caught up in their own various forms of madness and mania. I'd say it's a novel about the people of West Condon much more than anything else. The author is a genius when it comes to the characters -- and it's really incredibly tough to believe that this was Mr. Coover's first novel. It does take some time and attention to get through, not because it's difficult to read, but because the author so carefully and slowly develops the frenzy that occurs not just among the Brunists, but the craziness occurring throughout the entire town. It also shows that no matter what sort of community these people find themselves in, even in "A community of good will," everything eventually comes down to matters of self interest -- a very non-idealistic view that makes this book well worth reading. Definitely recommended. ( )
1 vote bcquinnsmom | Dec 18, 2013 |
This novel of American small town life and chiliastic enthusiasm is pretty gripping. The many characters are all vividly drawn with profound humanity, and the plot contains major surprises. Coover sophisticatedly mixes tragedy and comedy, and the narrative voice is elastic, accommodating evangelicals, intellectuals, politicians, profiteers, mystics, and bigots by turns. The Brunists are a new religious movement arising on the heels of a mining disaster, centered on an anomalous survivor. They produce a spiritual identity in the context of conflicts of class, ethnicity, and religion, under the stresses of economic and civic crisis.

I recently picked this book up from a paperback sale rack at the public library, and bumped it up in reading priority after hearing the news of the recent Upper Big Branch explosion, an event that turns out to be startlingly similar to the one described in Coover's 1966 novel. Such apparent synchronicity is a staple of the story, as the foremost way that the Brunist believers are gradually affirmed in their end-times worldview.

The most central character (and perhaps protagonist) is newspaper publisher Justin "Tiger" Miller, who doesn't believe in the Brunist revelations, but balances on the line between fascinated admiration for the sincerity of their religious experience, and cyncial exploitation of the public's incomprehension of it. Coover doesn't mock the Brunists, and he leaves the objective truth of their claims unresolved, but ultimately it seems that Miller's perspective reflects Coover's own take on the rewards and perils of religious fervor.
7 vote paradoxosalpha | Apr 27, 2010 |
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Respectfully for Richard P. McKeon 
And see that you make them
after the pattern for them
which has been shown you on the mountain . . .
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Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802137431, Paperback)

Originally published in 1969 and now back in print after over a decade, Robert Coover's first novel instantly established his mastery. A coal-mine explosion in a small mid-American town claims ninety-seven lives. The only survivor, a lapsed Catholic given to mysterious visions, is adopted as a doomsday prophet by a group of small-town mystics. "Exposed" by the town newspaper editor, the cult gains international notoriety and its ranks swell. As its members gather on the Mount of Redemption to await the apocalypse, Robert Coover lays bare the madness of religious frenzy and the sometimes greater madness of "normal" citizens. The Origin of the Brunists is vintage Coover -- comic, fearless, incisive, and brilliantly executed. "A novel of intensity and conviction ... a splendid talent ... heir to Dreiser or Lewis." -- The New York Times Book Review; "A breathtaking masterpiece on any level you approach it." -- Sol Yurick; "[The Origin of the Brunists] delivers the goods . . . [and] says what it has to say with rudeness, vigor, poetry and a headlong narrative momentum." -- The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:18 -0400)

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