In this “funny, ferocious fantasy” (Philadelphia Inquirer), God is a comatose, two-mile-long tourist attraction at a Florida theme park-until a conniving judge decides to put Him on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
About the Author
James Morrow was born in Philadelphia in 1947. Besides writing, he plays with Lionel electric trains and collects videocassettes of vulgar biblical spectacles.
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Of all the newsworthy objects torn loose from the ice by the great Arctic earthquake of 1998, among them an intact Viking ship and the frozen carcass of a woolly mammoth, the most controversial by far was the two-mile-long body of God. The debate, oddly enough, centered not on the Corpus Dei's identity — the body was accompanied, as we shall see, by an impeccable pedigree — but rather on its metaphysical status. Was God dead, as the nihilists and the New York Times believed? Only in a coma, as the Vatican and Orthodox Judaism dearly hoped? Or — the Protestant consensus — was the Almighty as spiritually alive as ever, having merely shed His fleshly form as a molting mayfly sheds its husk?
Prior to the peculiar events that constitute my tale, it looked as if the mystery might never be solved. The Corpus Dei's proprietors, devout Southern Baptists all, were ill inclined to sanction platoons of scientists tramping around inside His brain, leaving muddy footprints on His dendrites as they attempted to ascertain His degree of life or death. Moreover, as upholders of the theologically comforting Mayfly Theory, God's keepers rightly feared that such an expedition might yield signs of neural activity, thereby reinforcing the far more troublesome Coma Theory.
As for me, I wholeheartedly agreed with the ban on journeys into His cerebrum. Being the Devil, I have strong opinions about how human beings ought to conduct themselves. Unlike the Baptists' views, however, my own are shaped more by prudence than by piety. It is always wise, I feel, to leave well enough alone. It is best to let sleeping gods lie.
The sign on the courtroom door read JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, though neither justice nor peace figured reliably in Martin Candle's occupation, which was largely a matter of enforcing leash laws, reprimanding jaywalkers, trying petty criminals, collecting overdue parking fines, and performing civil wedding ceremonies.
Martin pursued his calling in Abaddon Township, Pennsylvania, a staunchly Republican enclave spread across a wide valley twenty miles north of Philadelphia. Abaddon was a quiet and prosperous world, a place of lush parks, rolling farmlands, and bedroom communities with names like Fox Run and Glendale. The township's best feature, everyone agreed, was Waupelani Creek, a luminous stream winding gently through the valley from north to south, threading its settlements together like the string connecting the beads on a rosary. Minnows thrived in the Waupelani. Garter snakes slithered along its banks. Water striders walked Jesus-like on its surface. A rare and beautiful species, of fish lived in these waters as well, a yellow-scaled carp whose collective comings and goings on brilliant summer days transformed their habitat from a conventional brook into a river of molten gold. Bisecting the backyard of Martin's childhood home in Fox Run, the Waupelani afforded him many happy hours of ice-skating, catching crayfish, and sailing the battleships he'd nailed together from stray scraps of lumber found in the basement. Only after he'd grown up, moved to Glendale, obtained a degree from Perkinsville Community College, and won his firstelection did it occur to him that Waupelani Creek had actually functioned in his boyhood as a toy — the best toy a child could wish for, better than a tree fort or a Lionel electric train set.
Abaddon Township's odd appellation traced to a warm summer evening in 1692, when a Quaker schoolmaster named Prester Harkins spied the Devil himself sitting in the boggy marsh that drained the valley's brooks and streams. The Evil One was taking a bath. Harkins saw his iron-bristled scrub brush. Although the schoolmaster was in fact suffering from a nascent case of paranoid schizophrenia, his neighbors all gave credence to his hallucination, and before long the marsh and its environs had acquired one of Hell's more evocative epithets, Abaddon being the Hebrew name both of a demonic angel and of the Bottomless Pit from which he hailed. By the time the twentieth century arrived, however, the township's citizens had forgotten the meaning of Abaddon. To them, it was merely an adequate name for an adequate suburb, a word outsiders were forever mispronouncing by accenting the first syllable. "Rhymes with Aladdin," the natives routinely informed visitors. "Emphasize the bad," they added — a strangely Augustinian motto for a citizenry whose sense of original sin could hardly be called acute. While occasionally one of Martin's neighbors would experience the sort of dark depression that commonly overtook less fortunate Americans, the average Abaddonian gave no thought to the fact that he was living in Hell.
Like many individuals who remain in their home communities while their friends venture into the wider world, Martin battled a fear that he was, and always would be, a failure. Under such circumstances a man will typically take an extreme view of his vocation, either regarding it as a kind of penance (somewhere between emptying bedpans in a paupers' hospital and working an oar on a slave galley) or elevating it beyond the bounds of reason. Martin opted for apotheosis. Upon winning the electorate's approval with his dignified bearing, athletic figure, and dark-eyed, sandy-haired good looks, he retained its loyalty through diligence and probity, considering each case as if the fate of nations hung on the outcome. Eventually even Democrats were voting for him. Although he held no advanced degrees — a person could ascend to the office of JP in those days with nothing but a college diploma and a working knowledge of local ordinances — he was as devoted to the ideal of justice as anyone on the faculty of Harvard Law School. His rulings were inspiringly fair, his methods upliftingly thorough. Judge Candle would never stop at suspending an alcoholic's license following a drunk-driving conviction; no, he would also try maneuvering the offender into rehabilitation. When an adolescent shoplifter came his way, he was never satisfied to convict, fine, and rebuke the thief; he would next attempt to uncover the root of the felony, visiting the young person's parents and urging everyone toward family counseling.
Even the weddings gave Martin an opportunity to find glory in his judgeship. When two people choose to be married before a justice of the peace, it's a good bet that something interesting has gone wrong in their lives, and the typical ceremony found Martin functioning more as a priest or therapist than as a magistrate. In about ten percent of these cases, one member of the couple was terminally ill. In twenty-five percent, the bride was pregnant. In forty percent, the proposed match — Jew to Christian, Protestant to Catholic, white to black — had proven unpalatable to one of the affected families. On three occasions, Martin had wed a man to a man; twice, a woman to a woman. Although these same-sex unions scandalized many of his fellow Republicans, he performed them with equanimity, believing that the principle of laissez-faire should apply no less to the bedroom than to the marketplace.
Commonly, the couple in question could not afford to rent a suitably dignified locale in which to exchange their vows, and they were understandably loath to use their own accommodations: a run-down trailer park or your parents' living room is an inauspicious platform from which to launch a new, connubial life. Learning of the couple's plight, Martin would immediately offer them the back parlor of his bachelor's apartment. The rug was clean, the furniture tasteful, and the light sufficiently dim to make the Masonite paneling look like oak. In their nervousness many couples would forget an essential prop or two, and so he kept his parlor stocked with marriage paraphernalia. The bride and groom were invariably amazed when, just as panic was about to possess them, Martin would coolly open a plywood cabinet and remove an imitation-gold wedding ring, a pair of scented candles, a bouquet of silk flowers, a box of latex condoms, or a bottle of Cook's champagne.
The most imaginative nuptials occurred not in Martin's parlor but in the world at large. He always brought his wedding props along, securing them carefully inside his briefcase before climbing into his white Dodge Aries and setting off to stamp the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's imprimatur on the venerable urgings of the flesh. Once he wed two scuba enthusiasts at the bottom of the Schuylkill River, everyone dressed in wet suits and breathing bottled air. Another time he joined two skydiving aficionados as they floated above the Chestnut Grove Country Club, the bride's veil trailing behind her like a superheroine's cape. He would never forget uniting a pair of Perkinsville bohemians as they copulated vigorously on their waterbed, so that they might enjoy the unique experience of beginning the act as fornicators and completing it as a legal entity.
It was through his vocation that, at age forty-nine, Martin met the beguiling and eccentric Corinne Rosewood. One agreeable April afternoon the township's blustery constable, Hugh Steadman, hauled Corinne into Martin's little courtroom, having arrested her on a charge of disturbing the peace. According to Steadman, for the past three years Corinne had given the backyard of her Chestnut Grove bungalow over to the cultivation of Nepeta cataria: catnip. Each evening, right after sunset, the addicts would arrive — tabbies, calicoes, tortoiseshells, Siamese — mewing and hissing as they pressed their spines to the ground and rolled around on the leaves. Not only were Corinne's neighbors forced to endure the din of this nightly bacchanal, the cat owners among them were commonly subjected to pets so stoned that, prancing home at four A.M., they totally forgot what a litter box was, blithely relieving themselves on the floor.
There she stood, a zaftig woman with hair the color of buttered toast, dressed in a checked flannel shirt, faded jeans, and red vinyl cowboy boots, rocking back and forth on her heels and grinning unrepentantly as Constable Steadman charged her with corrupting the township's cats. Her face was round and dimpled, barred from true beauty only by a nose resembling a baby turnip. Martin was smitten. Throughout the arraignment his heart pounded like a moonstruck adolescent's. Corinne's majestic form and unorthodox features appealed to his aesthetic sense, her crime to his fondness for audacity. The central image enchanted him: hundreds of ecstatic cats hallucinating in the moonlight, singing to the stars, gamboling through Corinne's garden of feline delights.
At her hearing ten days later she pleaded innocent. Martin weighed the evidence, found her guilty, and fined her two hundred and fifty dollars.
"I think I'm in love with you," he said, whipping off his bifocals and staring directly at the defendant. "Will you marry me?" Assuming the judge was being facetious, Corinne replied that of course she would marry him, provided he dropped the fine.
"I won't drop the fine, but I'll reduce it to two hundred."
"One hundred fifty?"
"Does a June wedding sound okay to you?"
Constable Steadman blinked incredulously. The bailiff issued an astonished cough.
"Are you crazy?" said Corinne, absently fingering the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania flag beside Martin's bench, opposite the Stars and Stripes. "I don't even know you."
"How about dinner instead? Dinner and a show."
"That's a possibility."
"Tonight I'm holding up a gas station in Glendale. Friday night would work."
"It's a deal."
On Friday night Martin and Corinne attended a revival of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution at Philadelphia's Theater of the Living Arts, and six months later they were indeed married, in a civil ceremony conducted by Kevin McKendrick, the JP of Cheltenham Township, the jurisdiction immediately to the east.
A most peculiar pair, these two. Martin: the lifelong Protestant monotheist and centrist Republican, the only son of Siobhan O'Leary, a receptionist in a travel bureau, and Walter Candle, a teetotal bartender who sought to counter the intrinsic secularity of his career by teaching Presbyterian Sunday school. Corinne: the free-spirited pagan and former Peace Corps volunteer, progeny of the first woman ever to run for governor of Maryland on the Socialist ticket and a failed Marxist playwright turned successful sporting-goods salesman. And yet they were happy ... not only happy but obstreperously happy — happy to a degree that would have been insufferable in a couple less blameless and upright.
Four months after their wedding they secured a mortgage on a ramshackle farmhouse and adjoining barn at 22 Flour Mill Road in Chestnut Grove. Located three miles north of Abaddon Marsh, the couple's estate comprised over six acres, more than enough for furtively growing Nepeta cataria. That April they sowed the seeds together, pausing periodically to make love in the apple orchard, and by June the crop was in bloom, introducing dozens of local felines to a level of self-indulgence that seemed excessive even by the standards of a cat.
Corinne's love for animals went far beyond catnip farming. She was a devout vegetarian whose Ford Ranger sported bumper stickers proclaimingMEAT IS MURDER and I'D RATHER GO NAKED THAN WEAR FUR. For her livelihood she managed All Creatures Great and Small, a Perkinsville establishment specializing in gourmet food for dogs, cats, and — most profitably — the horses owned by the adolescent girls of Abaddon Township's wealthiest settlement, the posh and sylvan community of Deer Haven. Corinne's own taste in pets ran decidedly toward the outre. The creatures with whom Martin was forced to compete for his wife's affections included not only an iguana named Sedgewick but also a tarantula named Hairy Truman and an armadillo called Shirley — a misanthropic beast whose entire behavioral repertoire consisted of eating, sleeping, and, every day at two P.M., creeping from one corner of the basement to the other, depositing a pile of ordure as she passed.
On the evening of their first anniversary, Corinne looked Martin squarely in the eye, raised her second glass of Cook's champagne to her lips, and said, softly, "It was the lobsters."
"From Super Fresh."
The case to which Corinne was evidently alluding had appeared on Martin's docket early in their courtship. Shortly after eleven P.M. on September 19, 1996, a young woman named Nancy Strossen had broken into a Super Fresh grocery store in Fox Run and transferred all the live lobsters from their display case to a holding tank. Later that night Strossen drove the tank across New Jersey, parked on a deserted Cape May beach, and released each and every lobster into the North Atlantic. Presented with the facts of Strossen's escapade, Martin had sentenced her to two days in jail, but he declined to make her pay any damages. Instead, he told the Super Fresh management their lobster trade was manifestly inhumane, and they would do well to abandon this business of torturing crustaceans.
"It was the lobsters that won me over," Corinne continued. "You let the defendant off with a slap on the wrist, and I said to myself, 'Look no further, dear.'"
"Lovely lobsters," said Martin woozily, finishing his third glass of champagne. "Lovely, lovely lobsters."
Eighteen months into the marriage Corinne got the idea of setting up the canine equivalent of the celebrated Make-A-Wish Foundation. She solicited contributions through Dog Fancy magazine, rented a one-room office in downtown Kingsley, and hired her dim-witted but saintly cousin Franny as chief administrator. Within half a year the Kennel of Joy had become a going concern, sustained through a mixture of charitable donations and Corinne's take-home pay. Thanks to the Kennel of Joy, a dying Manhattan dachshund finally got to chase a Wisconsin rabbit into its warren; a diabetic bloodhound from Newark joined three other dogs in finding a child lost in the Great Smokies; and a leukemic golden retriever born and bred in the parched Texas town of Tahoka spent the last weeks of her life swimming in the Rio Grande.
Had Martin not been crazy about Corinne, he would have regarded the Kennel of Joy as a dreadful waste of money, and the organization would probably have occasioned screaming matches of the sort that had characterized the terminal phases of his previous relationships. But love does strange things to a man's sense of proportion, which is why — contrary to rumor — it is by no means the Devil's least favorite emotion.
Me again. Yours truly. Let's get something straight right now. This is not Old Nick here. This is not Mr. Scratch, Beelzebub, Gentleman Jack, or any other cozy and domesticated edition of myself. This is the Devil. This is hardball.
Excerpted from "Blameless in Abaddon"
Copyright © 1996 James Morrow.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
SPELUNKING THE INFINITE,
GOD IN THE DOCK,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,