As long time readers of this site know, I am a sucker for short, quirky books about faith. So when I stumbled upon Saving Erasmus it seemed right up my alley. Slim volume, with intriguing cover, interesting story hook, quality publisher – what’s not too like?
Publishers Weekly captured the flavor of this book perfectly:
Cross the prophet Job with It’s a Wonderful Life and you get this award-winning poet’s first-person debut novel, rife with strangeness and humor. When the angel of death climbs out of a broken washing machine and announces that the town of Erasmus is about to be destroyed, Andrew Benoit, a pastor fresh out of seminary, only has a week to save it. Erasmus turns out to be a “Potterville” where a Mrs. Primrose Davenport owns almost everything and money is God. A small band of mystics named for movie stars gather at the mystical hot spot The Instant Coffee Cup (run by the wryly named John Luther Zwingli) and hold out hope. But, as Cleaver puns, Erasmus is interested in “profit,” not a “prophet.” What follows is a down-the-rabbit-hole mishmash of images; the Velveteen Rabbit, Homer Simpson, Mae West, and a Knight Templar all contribute their own bits of wisdom for Andrew. There are plenty of nods to Christian history, both overt and subtle, including a scene with several saints who urge Benoit to find “the truth within” and give it a voice. But is it the town that really needs saving? Or is it something-or someone-else? This bizarre, whimsical novel will charm and delight some readers and perplex others.
That last sentence is quite accurate I think. Saving Erasmus is full of quirky allusions and puns and a dry sense of humor. It also has a surreal feel to it. You are not quite sure what is real and what is in Andrew’s mind. If you are looking for traditional spiritual humor or storytelling you are likely to be disappointed. The storyline has a bizarre almost stream of consciousness quality to it that can be perplexing and off-putting.
I found that the whimsy and charm noted by PW, however, makes the slim light novel worth reading. It has the feel of a short story. Andrew’s rather difficult, and yet in many ways touching, childhood is probably the strongest story thread. But the quirky humor keeps the mood light and plot moving.
Saving Erasmus is Cleaver’s first novel and in some ways it shows. The change of heart experienced by Benoit’s main antagonist, Mrs. Davenport, seem almost an afterthought and too often the quirky style undermines the story’s rhythm. But Cleaver also shows some promise with an interesting style and a light touch when tackling serious issues. And at 182 pages, it can be read it one sitting. It will be interesting to see if Cleaver further hones his craft while retaining his unique perspective.
So if you are looking for a quirky modern take on Jonah, check out Saving Erasmus.