I went to Catholic school, damn it. They guilted me good and thick. In junior high, the young priest who led the boys’ sex ed talk referred to masturbation as “wasting God’s seed.” Even thoughts could be dangerous, as what’s a fantasy but the seed for future sin? The dangers of temptation surrounded us, the nuns lectured during catechism. Be stalwart, you young soldiers of Christ! While they droned on, I daydreamed about decapitating demons, losing myself in a blood-soaked orgy of Christ-sanctioned violence. But one thing always troubled me about Catholic doctrine—one big thing. For as far back as I can remember I never quite swallowed the whole Jesus Christ, Son of God story.
I must lack the gene for belief, because trust me, the administration designed the whole system to forge this mythology into fact. I received my first holy communion and thought, “This is it? The body of Christ?” No Holy Ghost manifested, nor did I burst into flames, a doubting Thomas in God’s house. I loved the tales of miracles and morality, but taking them as literally true seemed kind of silly to me. My faith required proof, which means it wasn’t faith at all.
Faith is one of the themes in Bryan Furuness’s debut novel The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. At the start of the novel, the twelve-year-old protagonist, Revie, believes in Jesus. In fact, Revie believes that he’s the second coming of Christ. Flipping through his illustrated children’s Bible, Revie’s glad to have missed the trials of crucifixion and looks forward to Judgement Day, when he’ll ride around on a white steed with gold cowboy boots and kick some ass.
Revie’s surety has no root in any Gospel, it stems from stories his mother tells him, “lost episodes” that depict Jesus as a boy very much like Revie—a pre-teen living in Gary, Indiana during the mid-eighties. Lucifer lives down the street from Jesus; they’re best friends. When Jesus sins, he forgives himself. After an unfortunate accident with his pet turtle, Jesus discovers he can raise the dead and becomes a junkie, addicted to the miracle. “Each resurrection brought less wonder and more guilt, but did Jesus stop? Did he even slow down? If anything, he picked up his pace. If he brought something to life before breakfast, he’d think, Well, I guess I blew it for the day, and go on a resurrection bender. . . That year, one possum got run over on Cline Avenue eighteen different times.”
In these episodes, Furuness breathes new life into the long dead tradition of recounting tales of Jesus’s infancy and childhood. These apocrypha—events unaccepted into Biblical canon—were written during the earliest centuries of Christianity, supplying a popular demand for Jesus narratives. (Some, like television spin-offs, even followed the adventures of side-characters like John the Baptist.) The Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas, for example, depicts the Christ Child as a prankster, cursing boys who pick on him, turning them to withered corpses, even blinding their parents. Later, young Jesus saves his brother from a poisonous snakebite, and helps his carpenter father by lengthening wooden beams so that they fit properly. These stories are less miraculous and more magical, almost like comic book issues in which the young superhero learns the weight of justice—“with great power comes great responsibility,” and so forth.
Furuness paints his portraits of young Jesus with the psychological dimension of an adept short story writer. (His work appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2010.) The “lost episodes” are rife with humor, but also sadness. What a lonely existence it must have been, to have fantastic powers no one else did, and a distant, all-powerful father who never talks to you.
Not unlike the hero of Furuness’s story, Revie’s mother, a blond bombshell, loves playing with her son more than providing him care. She swears, sleeps late, serves snacks for dinner, and teaches him to drive in the family station wagon—a stunt that reveals the extent of her irresponsibility to Revie’s father. After that, she leaves the family for “a cooling off period,” heading to Hollywood to pursue dreams of becoming a starlet. Revie’s left with his father, a former professional golfer who teaches year-round lessons at an indoor golf-dome and doesn’t do much of a better job than his wife at parenting. He brings Revie to the bar most nights, or else leaves him alone.
Revie’s substitute science teacher, Miss Dupay, fills the vacuum left by his parents, descending like the Holy Ghost to bestow upon Revie a miraculous power he’s unable to tell anyone about: the power of sex. Miss Dupay’s monologues are blasts of drunken poetry in the midst of Furuness’s sober, clear prose. Her theories about love, life, and the universe make her as enthralling on the page as she is to the characters in the world of the novel, students and adults alike. When introducing herself to Revie’s class, she says:
In the middle of the Pacific is a giant reef of condoms. Two miles long! Sixty feet deep! How did this reef form? Does it have a specific kind of gravity, some kind of homing signal that calls lone condoms through miles of open sea to the mother reef? … whoever connects the dots between gravity and like aggregation will see the living heart of all existence. That person, blessed soul, will understand the unifying theory of the universe.
The mysterious laws of attraction that pull together clouds, lovers, and families—as well as that condom reef—present daily miracles, powers we believe in but do not completely understand. The women in Revie’s life, prophets of love, seem to offer insight into these phenomena, just as the men exert their control over him. Revie must navigate these forces to find his own place in the family, among his peers, with girls, in the world. Thus, Furuness offers a parable of every pre-teen’s life, aware of the currents of power, lust, and love at play among adults, yet unable to affect their course or always comprehend their stakes.
In this wonderful debut, Furuness demonstrates the power of narrative, whether religious stories or scientific postulates, to provide a container for a person to invest belief, and therefore locate strength. He gives even this devout non-believer hope that telling, hearing, and inventing stories is central to being human, and, in particular, to growing up. And for that, I give thanks.