NY Times Book Review
Signs and Wonders: A Novelby Melvin Jules Bukiet
In late 1999, in the midst of a brutal hurricane on the Baltic coast, a concrete prison barge rips free of its moorings. Of thousands of Europe's most dangerous criminals, only the twelve depraved souls in cell block 306 survive. One of the twelve is their Savior. As word spreads of the Second Coming, some think the "Messiah" is a fraud, some think he is deluded,
In late 1999, in the midst of a brutal hurricane on the Baltic coast, a concrete prison barge rips free of its moorings. Of thousands of Europe's most dangerous criminals, only the twelve depraved souls in cell block 306 survive. One of the twelve is their Savior. As word spreads of the Second Coming, some think the "Messiah" is a fraud, some think he is deluded, and many, with a deep need to believe, do so. The new messiah must meet the press, the lawyers, the cops, and the swindlers, all of them vying for a piece of the action en route to the only place a modern Second Coming would occur--a theme park ruled by a rodent--as the celestial clock ticks down to '00.
Rife on the surface with Bukiet's trademark black humor and rage toward a malevolent God, Signs and Wonders seethes with incisive and courageous commentary on history, religious faith, and mankind at the end of this century.
NY Times Book Review
In several story collections and the post-Holocaust novel After, Melvin Jules Bukiet has proved himself a fierce contender with God. While some of the stories resemble those of the late Bernard Malamud in his lyrical, magic-realist mode, Bukiet's predominant stance is rage. "Basically, I believe, but I don't like the Deity," this former literary editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun has said. "I think the Deity has unilaterally violated the covenant by killing 'the chosen people' time and again ... I think he doesn't like us."
Signs and Wonders, Bukiet's second novel, continues his bitter quarrel with God. Set in Germany on the cusp of the year 2000, the story chronicles the rise of a most unlikely messiah. Ben Alef emerges from a prison barge on the stormy Baltic Sea -- having survived the barge's sinking by walking on water. He is accompanied by 11 other prisoners. These misbegotten "disciples" include murderers, rapists and a concentration-camp commandant. On shore, they are joined by a final apostle, a fisherman who is the token "good German."
Ben Alef works other miracles (a revival from the dead, a loaves-and-fishes bit at a wedding), gathers a devoted following and attracts worldwide media attention. Despite negative press revelations -- the concentration-camp number on his arm, for example, turns out to be the product of a Hamburg tattoo parlor -- his New Jewish Church thrives more than ever. No doubt part of its appeal is an orgiastic sin-and-be saved doctrine straight out of the cabalist salvation kit of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century would-be messiah. In any event, an alarmed pope and German chancellor conspire to crush Ben Alef. Given the scenario of 2,000 years earlier, you can guess how all this ends.
Bukiet's blend of storytelling brio and audacious imagination calls to mind such disparate maximalists as the Salman Rushdie of Midnight's Children and the Mark Helprin of Winter's Tale. He is at his best in furious bursts of scalding black humor, which come in two sizes: large-scale action scenes out of Cecil B. DeMille (Ben Alef's survival at sea, his day of doom at a Euro Disney theme park) and in miniature riffs a la Woody Allen ("I like a Messiah I can negotiate with," a promoter quips. "Managed properly, you can make a killing").
Bukiet is less adept, however, at getting inside his characters. Ben Alef may be the messiah, but he's hardly the novel's central character. That role is given to Snakes Hammurabi, a Hamburg drug dealer whose Turkish parents were cosmopolitan seekers after religious truth (his nickname is based on their last, and fatal, enthusiasm, for fundamentalist Christian snake-handling). But Snakes -- surely an alter ego for the author ("He could distrust the Lord and believe in him at the same time") -- is almost as much a mystery man as is Ben Alef, and he shouldn't be. Nor is Bukiet clear about the nature of his new religion and its relations to existing forms of Judaism and Christianity.
Still, Signs and Wonders is both thrilling reading and deeply intelligent commentary that dares to ask timeless questions: Does God care about us, and should we care about the answer? To have pulled off that delicate balancing act is, indeed, something of a miracle. -- Salon
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1ST PICADO
- Product dimensions:
- 6.46(w) x 9.55(h) x 1.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
"God is the problem," Snakes Hammurabi replied.
His cell mates had asked him what he had done. Three of them surrounded the new arrival, scenting fresh bloodor, maybe, more likely, money. Snakes dressed well for prison. His sleek Italian loafers, purchased in Florence the week before, seemed to repel the rank yellow pool he stepped in. The liquid sloshed outward from his sole and drained away toward a hole at the base of a slight concavity in the cement floor. If Snakes hadn't been drunk and the entire world hadn't already been topsy-turvy, he might have noticed that his own internal balance wheel tipped likewise. But the phenomenon at his feet was arrestinghis softly contoured shoe sat like Noah's ark atop a half-inch Ararat with forty days and forty nights of yellow flood eddying mysteriously down into the sewer of the planetand he gazed at the miracle his shoes had wrought.
"The gentle sway of Der Good Shit Lollipop," the cross-eyed one explained. "It's the only way we can tell when the barge is listing." He was standing between two other prisoners; he was their leader and spokesman. To his left hulked a shirtless giant who resembled a missile, thick cylindrical body with a broad neck that tapered indistinguishably toward a small pointed head. To his right was a wiry man with shoulder-length coils of black hair and a complexion as dark as Snakes's, probably a Turk.
Snakes wondered if he should feel intimidated, and took secret comfort in the knife that the cursory police search had missed; it was tucked into aslot in the heel of his left shoe, a tiny, spring-loaded switchblade with a stone-ground edge.
Then a wave crashed into the base of the bargeit was forty days and forty nights outside tooand even the most experienced of unwilling mariners had to grab ahold of something solid. The bodybuilder tripped on the drain and careened into the far corner of the cell. "Well, sometimes we can tell, anyway," he hee-hawed, and grinned a wide, toothless smile.
"Heavy weather," Snakes sympathized.
"Heavy water," said an old man from the shadowy recesses of the bunk behind Snakes, cackling to himself.
A flash of light burst through a four-inch square of two-inch-thick glass set into the distant wall. The window was so streaked with gull droppings it was practically opaque and only the vaguest tinge of Baltic green could usually be discerned, but the lightning illuminated the cell long enough for Snakes to perceive it more properly than the dim bulb anchored on the ceiling allowed. His new home was eight feet wide, twenty long, with two tiers of three beds, head to toe to head to toe to head to toe, along each wall. Snakes caught a glimpse of images of naked women with large breasts and spread legs stuck to the cinder-block walls.
Four beds were empty; three obviously belonged to his greeting committee and one was reserved for him. Each of the first three had several threadbare coverlets and pillows, while his, like most of his new roomies', was barren. Okay. He'd have to see about that. It was cold in the cell.
Snakes took a seat on the untenanted cement slab cantilevered out of the wall as if it were a red velvet settee at the Kastrasse Lounge, where he had last held court until his recent unfortunate encounter with the law. His long legs extended outward, and he appreciated the match between the exposed green silk socks that clung to his bony ankles and the chartreuse linen pants riding up his calves. Snakes was a dandy.
Most of the men on the blanketless slabs who had not bothered to scope out the new arrival were old, their faces and clothes an identical pallid gray, whether from lack of light or lack of cleansing, he couldn't tell. Suddenly the cell reeked of age and its miseries, scabs and sores, badly digested food and its evacuation, which crusted the rim of the drain. Snakes took a handkerchief from his breast pocket and delicately pressed it to his nostrils to inhale the scent of magnolias.
Another wave crashed below them and the barge rocked and the pool of urine that had overshot the drain came flowing back, streaking the concrete in thin rivulets.
"Looks like we're in for it."
"We're all in for it." The cackler behind Snakes laughed in his dementia. He was the oldest man in one of the upper tiers, which Snakes instantly perceived were preferable, those at the corners more so. Ipso facto, Snakes as a newcomer, along with the inmate directly across from him, behind the welcoming committeea tall, gaunt man with streaks of filthy hairhad been relegated to the least desirable quarters. Closest to the latrine. Even here, a hierarchy.
The cross-eyed one slapped at the side of the feet dangling in front of Snakes's eyes, and the feet swung as erratically as a straw man's. "Shut up, I told you."
"Shut up, you told me," the cackler echoed.
The cross-eyed one grabbed the leg and yanked the old man down onto the floor. Long white hair shot upward as the body dropped. A flesh-covered bag of bones hit the floor with a thump and rattle of teeth.
Unfazed, the bag's occupant continued, "And I told you we're in for it, and just because I told you don't mean it ain't true."
The cross-eyed one straddled the cackler in parody of one of the pornographic images taped to the walls. Instead of rocking with pleasure or satisfaction, however, he clutched the shank of white hair, hauled the head upward and banged it back onto the floor.
The bodybuilder sidled forward from the corner and stood above them like a referee, but he did not move to interfere, and nobody else on the other beds moved either.
Snakes understood that this was a show for his benefit. He leaned back upon his two elbows and prepared to enjoy it.
The old man chortled wildly even as the cross-eyed man continued to crack his head until either head or concrete seemed bound to split.
Thunder rolled in from across the bay and boomed through the walls and echoed in the tiny room, and the lightbulb encased in a tight wire mesh blinked. Underneath it, the battered old man's eyes flickered like the bulb's and finally closed, and the cross-eyed man turned around, and continued, "You were saying ... Snakes, you said your name was?"
"Nice to meet you ..." Snakes left the sentence hanging for an introduction.
"That God was the problem."
"For a nautical stay."
From the moment of his appearance before the judge on the midnight-to-dawn shift, Snakes had known that he was not in for the usual trouble that a man in his position was liable to. A deed that ought to have resulted in a desk summons was taken too seriously by the blank-eyed justice who leered down from his bench. "Remanded to Farnhagen until further notice," he said, and smacked his gavel.
It was the same in the police van that carried Snakes to the Farnhagen. He was kept isolated from both guards and other prisoners as if he were contaminated with a rare disease. During the two hours' transport to the northeast, he realized that he had not been given an opportunity to call a lawyer. Fat lot of good his fat retainer did him here. He felt the bump of the van as it left the road and climbed onto a dirt road and then onto a corduroy bridge and then halted. Only in the ten-step passage from the van through the gate was he granted a glimpse of sea and a breath of salt before entering into the immense structure he was condemned to.
The barge Farnhagen sat like a semi-deflated balloon on the surface of the stagnant inlet at Wieland. Its top was curved like a tennis bubble, but down below it consisted of floor after floor of concrete with tiny holes that were all the contact its residents were to have with the outside universe until their release. Built for temporary overflow of the regular prison facilities twenty years earlier, the Farnhagen was designated for short-term use and quick abandonment, but the overflow never abated and it sat and sat and deteriorated.
Snakes was checked through a lax security that hardly bothered to pat him down. He could have smuggled a bazooka in with his knife. Perhaps the authorities didn't care, because the prisoners could only harm each other and save the state the expense of their upkeep. His height, weight, and identifying features were noted: 5'8", 134 pounds, brown eyes, three-inch scar under left breast.
Next stop was the storeroom, where his watch and wallet were confiscated and logged into a narrow blue ledger, so that they could be parceled out among the civil servants who worked there for precisely such perks. The sergeant in charge of the storeroom noticed Snakes's fancy clothes, but did not issue him prison garb, either because they didn't have any or because Snakes's 32 slim wouldn't fit his own 44 large frame. Perhaps it didn't make a difference because all clothes here, prisoners' and warders' both, were destined to be transformed immediately into Farnhagen drab.
Snakes was marched down several long halls, through several checkpoints, until he faced one in a row of steel doors with fisheye peepholes. The guard made a great show of raising his hand to his forehead as if saluting while peering through the hole, until he deemed it safe to open the outer door. Snakes was shoved through into a two-foot anteroom. The door behind him locked; the door ahead opened with a remote hydraulic whoosh, the only evidence of modern prison technology. Eleven pairs of eyes met him from inside the cell where he nowsurely temporarilyresided, although some of hissurely temporarycompanions had the look of decades of airless, motionless incarceration.
"So, what are you in for?" the Turkish-looking fellow said.
"It's no crime here," Snakes's new interrogator commented as he unzipped and spattered about the hole, creating a new pool to refill the depression Snakes's fine shoes had displaced.
"It is in church ... that is, if you don't use the bathroom."
The three men stood menacinglyand not because they were offended at Snakes's transgression, but rather because a man as well-dressed as this one, in stir for an offense as petty as this one, might have something to offer that the guards hadn't already grabbed. Snakes crossed his legs to bring his knife within easy reach of his hand, and began. "I was at the Kastrasse, maybe you know it, in the St. Pauli district, a nice place, good for business and pleasure."
Suddenly cagey, the cross-eyed one said, "I've heard of it."
The Kastrasse was a private club, very private, too private for the likes of this thug. "What have you heard?"
"That everyone who goes there is a pansy."
"Only partially true," Snakes answered obligingly.
The cross-eyed man looked baffled that his insult had been accepted or deflected, he wasn't certain which. "Go on."
"It was a lovely night, was it only last night? Good Scotch, good hash, good conversation, the kind you gentlemen are clearly familiar with, until it was late, and I decided to go home. All good things come to an end. Unfortunately, the bathroom was occupied by certain parties involved in a ... transaction, so I bade my adieus with a rather full bladder."
"I don't understand him," the bodybuilder whined.
"To pee or not to pee, that was the question, mein Herr. Unwisely, I opted for the latter until several blocks later necessity made itself too keenly felt. I might have done my duty in a park al fresco, but the dew was already staining my cuffs, yet no place in the vicinity was open for business, and my lodging still distant. It was a lovely night, no hint of this storm, and I was strolling. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I noticed a religious edifice, and recalled the legend that such doors were never locked. It was true. It was a large room, and I saw what appeared to be a free-standing pissoir on a stage at the front."
"The fuckin' pulpit."
"I had never peed on a stage in front of, oh, say, a thousand seats, and the idea appealed to me. Imagine those seats filled: ladies with hats, gents humble on bent knee, a first-night, first-rate, first-class audience, and the curtain rises to"
"Precisely. It was a case of clear biological need, and I always defer to biology. I did what was necessary, while imagining the house full, and assuming it empty. Alas, it was neither. A nocturnal believer in silent back-row communion witnessed my distress. Wretch, rather than sympathize with my predicament or shout `Bravo!' he sneaked outward, flagged a cruising rover, and brought them posthaste. I was caught with my pants down."
"Perhaps you would be so kind as to remove those pants now," the cross-eyed one said.
"Perhaps I wouldn't."
"We are simply requesting to see what you have already presented to the church," the Turk explained.
"I'm sorry, but I believe in rigorous church-state separation. That's a deeply held principle."
"Bruno," the cross-eyed one said.
At a signal, the lumbering giant stepped forward.
"Bruno," Snakes repeated, and extended his hand. "Glad to meet you."
Unsure, the giant looked back at his leader. "Anton?" he pleaded.
"Shake the man's hand, Bruno."
The halfwit thrust out a paw.
Before their fingers touched, the one named Anton said, "Maybe you've heard of Bruno. He's a wrestler. Once known as Le Grand Blond. Sometimes he doesn't know his own strength."
Snakes recalled the newspaper headlines when Bruno broke an opponent's neck in the ring. The fight had been fixed, but not that well, and Bruno was arrested for manslaughter rather than murder. It was a minor charge, brought to sate the public in the same way that the wrestling matches themselves did. The trial was as fixed as the performance. But that was several years ago and Snakes might have thought Bruno would have been released by now. Time off for good behavior and all that. Unless Bruno hadn't behaved.
The big man's hands twitched in anticipation, and Snakes foresaw the vise squeezing his nicely manicured fingers. He removed the utensil from his heel and palmed it, then clasped hands together as if in prayer.
"You're not back at the church. Shake hands with Bruno," the host insisted.
Snakes extended his curled hand.
Bruno began with a friendly pressure that increased gradually. Snakes's fingers were crushed together like layers of cake under a press. He wiggled the release mechanism on the tool, and Bruno yelped and leapt back, a tiny spike embedded an inch in his palm, not quite piercing the far side of the flesh.
The old man on the floor giggled, and the cross-eyed man kicked him.
"Allow me," Snakes offered, leaning forward and jerking the knife from the flesh, releasing a thin spout of red to mix with and tint the yellow on the floor.
Released from his tiny pinion, Bruno swung wildly.
Snakes ducked and the sledge of a fist smacked into the side of Snakes's bed. Swiftly, Snakes moved under the fist and held the tiny knife to the thick neck that looked as invulnerable as a tree, but might yet have bled its own human sap. "Sit," he demanded.
"As I said, God is the problem. You are not. You I can deal with in my sleep. Next man who tried to touch me gets his balls cut off. Is that understood?" Then he turned to the cross-eyed leader named Anton. "My pillow?"
"Sure," Anton grumbled, and took an extra pillow from his own slab in the top corner beside the door. He tossed it across the room, and Snakes plucked it out of the air. A moment later, unrequested, a miserable blanket also flew, also snagged. Snakes turned his back to smooth them down as evenly as possible on the concrete bed, and then lay, arms crossed beneath his head, to contemplate his future.
Bruno whimpered, the cackler cackled, the others stared into space. Lightning flashed infrequently and the barge rocked upon the waters. Anton said, "Welcome to the pen."
Meet the Author
Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of After, While the Messiah Tarries, Stories of an Imaginary Childhood, and Sandman's Dust. He teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and writes and reviews regularly for The Paris Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times. He lives in New York City.
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