Novel asks hard questions of God
Jeff Berryman. Leaving Ruin. Orange, Calif.: New Leaf, 2001. ISBN#0-9700836-5-3; 361 pages; Price $14.95; (877) 634-6004.
Imagine you’re in West Texas. You live in a dusty town that always seems on the verge of blowing away. You worship at a boxy, non-denominational church of 276 members. Lately, your preacher has been letting you down. In sermons he quotes men you never heard of: Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and somebody named Rumi. Is he tiptoeing toward the liberal side? The preacher is subject to mood swings and acts a bit disorderly, like there’s something he wants to communicate but he can’t quite fit it into a comforting three-point sermon outline. What can possibly be happening to this responsible, middle-aged, balding man you hired a decade ago, a man whom you count on to be as much of a church fixture as the unadorned communion table up front?
What’s going on is the spiritual equivalent of a seismic event and the subject of Berryman’s lively, and dead-on, first novel Leaving Ruin. Berryman takes readers for a walk in the shined shoes of a sort of Every Preacher as he locks himself in the office with an open Bible and commentary, presides over the adult Sunday school class, occupies the pulpit, and now heads out the door and back home into a world of troubles that shadow those in his profession. It is an up-and-down, workaholic, prayer-packed journey. But here’s the curious thing: preacher Cyrus Manning starts to seem a lot like many of those who sit in the pews on Sunday. As he says early on, he “walks a tight rope between awe and doubt.”
Cyrus’ problem is that he really loves God. Though, in many ways, Cyrus has a good life, it doesn’t occur to him that he’s arrived. “I can’t help it. I ask questions,” he confesses. He’s already got it down that life itself is a miracle, but he wants a glimpse of seventh heaven. He asks, in effect, where is the ultimate glory that justifies this faded version we’re put through? Where are we going and what will it be like when we get there? And what about the good dying young? Most of all, Cyrus wants to know why God so often seems silent, especially at times when we need to hear Him most.
Cyrus is a blooming flower in the desert, made a bit eccentric with his desire. Come to think of it, he’s a character of biblical proportions — that is, he is strictly down-sized in traditional heroic qualities but huge in other ways, like Jacob who is just crazy enough to wrestle with an angel if that’s what it takes to get a blessing. Cyrus knows that this earnest quest is not what all the folks in church signed up for — after all, it’s dangerous. Chasing madly after God might not work or it could force him or her to change.
In a fast-moving narration, the reader is taken through the crisis months of August to November while Cyrus’s ministry hangs in the balance. Serving as the voice for his own story, Cyrus has the sensibility of the artist, sometimes working himself into poetic outbursts as here when he’s trying to imagine a sign from God.
“The saints begin to speak. All at once, but without confusion. I hear the voices of martyrs, and housewives, patriarchs and judges, the sons of god, the daughters of men, the heroes of old, the Jews of death camps and Sabbaths, and all the lion-eaten believers of long ago. … I await unknown truths, … new sayings to make glad my heart.”
While allowing Cyrus to go on in a loose, stream-of-consciousness way, Berryman has deliberately structured the novel. We are given glimpses of Sunday morning as Cyrus teaches another installment of his Sermon on the Mount series to the “young marrieds” class. The passages studied correlate with what is happening at that moment in Cyrus’ spiritual Daytimer which includes praying with Mike, a church member who is humiliatingly addicted to pornography; reaching out to the chain-smoking, tough-talking thirty-something Joy who cares for her very mean mom; and trying to discover more about a mysterious homeless man whose face, Cyrus imagines, has eyes like Jesus’.
Through it all Cyrus freely shares his most unhinged moments and it registers: this is a tough role trying to please all these people and God. Little wonder Cyrus has imaginary conversations with Jesus that are simultaneously wacky and encouraging and then on another day he is so angry he trashes his office, kicking walls savagely; there go the shiny shoes.
The women in Cyrus’ life are important to his spiritual development. He is fortunate to have Sara, a no-nonsense spouse who is refreshingly intolerant of Cyrus’s most whiney moments. Aptly named, Sara is the one who knows it’s mostly up to her to get the family to the next place that God will show them. She is also Cyrus’ eager partner in romance. It’s nice how Berryman paints the Mannings as notorious among some of the locals for being glimpsed entwined on the front porch. This is a marriage where the fires of passion still burn. And there is real communication in the relationship as Cyrus notes: “We’ve always talked. Built our lives there, on glasses of tea and water and cups of coffee warmed in microwaves.”
Cyrus, like Adam, needs his Eve, but Leaving Ruin really ratchets in intensity when he suddenly has two of them. Connie, Cyrus’ old high school flame, shows up, trying to escape an abusive husband. Naively, Sara takes Connie under her wing and installs her in the house not knowing that Cyrus and Connie got carried away to the maximum all those years ago. Berryman deftly uses the human triangle to explore how we are made of flesh and subject to urges that we don’t necessarily intentionally invite into our bodies.
It’s not giving away too much to state that in the end Cyrus does break open the silent heavens and obtains an answer from God. The conclusion will likely leave the reader thinking that all those prayers sent aloft by Cyrus Manning — and there is more praying in this novel than any I’ve ever read — have truly been answered.
In recent years Berryman, a former ACU drama professor, has honed this book as a one-man stage play that he has taken around the country. Typically his audience — ministers and members alike — reacts with tears and laughter. One can see why. Berryman gives voice to those in ministry, capturing their many dimensions and, to use an overworked word, “challenges.” At one point Cyrus wonders, “Does triumph ever look like barely hanging on?” Leaving Ruin answers that question with a resounding holy “yes.”
CONTACT Albert Haley at [email protected] Haley is assistant professor of English and author of Exotic: A Novel.