Spanish poetry translator, publisher of elimae press, and celebrated indie writer, Cooper Renner has written a debut novel Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead (Ggantijia, 215 pages). The work is an amalgamation of historical fiction, and ebbs and flows across hundreds of years and multiple psyches. Disturbing, entirely entertaining, and expertly written prose which drawls in slow, southern sweeps, Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead is dripping with beautiful language, harsh imagery and heady inquiry.
We begin in 1349 in England. A plague has overrun a nation and thousands are dying. We walk the murky depths of illness without modern medicine through the words of a 12-year-old boy named Jonathan. “A month ago the Death came.” Renner opens with a stamp sentence, and has a clean, clear grasp of the reigns which will pull throughout the novel. Although each section can stand on its own as a separate beautifully crafted piece of art, there is a deeper sense of story here, and so we press on with Johnathan through six centuries. Through a life as an orphan, he has continued, incarnate, to save the world from Dedemon, a man who has also traveled through time to spread suffering, to spread the plague.
In the great Southern literature tradition, there are many some will look to as “the model.” In Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 short story “Good Country People,” we are met with a girl who has one leg; we are met with a traveling Bible salesman. Argued as a metaphor for varying hypocrisies within the darker parts of Americana, the Bible salesman is often looked to as representative of the evils therein, and the havoc he makes with and advantage he takes of the young girl doubles as a statement O’Connor bravely wanted to announce to a wholesome pop American literature landscape. In Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead, I see a similarly pronounced young boy, first faced with tragedy, fighting over hundreds of years to set the clock right, to avenge the pain a man has caused his bloodline. In that evil, this character Renner has rendered us, Dedemon, who has traveled through centuries and hundreds of years reincarnate spreading disease, spreading pain, I see O’Connor’s traveling Bible salesman.
Some argue that in Milton’s Paradise Lost, western literature was first introduced to the contemporary, generally accepted depiction of Satan. In Milton, in the The Fall speech, we are given an unyielding, evil, self-undoing force. In a post Milton’s Satan world, the contemporary author is challenged with how to present the bravado of a snake-oil salesman, charlatan speech-sayer. Renner gives us him, in epic surpass, repeatedly throughout the work. We are given sermon after sermon from our evil character. As it has sustained him for six centuries, Renner shows us the power of rhetoric.
Inquiring deeper, we are, in a sense, pained by watching a hero stuck behind a window, banging at the glass. We watch Jonathan attempt to save the world while plagued with a Cassandra-esque knowledge and the mind of a 12-year-old person. We become a part of the fight for good in our heartbreak. An astounding first novel, Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead brings intellectual inquiry, explained clearly and thoughtfully through poetic prose, to a dark genre with a long history, and he carries that cross gracefully.
–Nicolle Elizabeth, author of Read This Sh*t Out Loud (forthcoming).
From Dr. Jesus and Mr. Dead, an excerpt:
A month ago the Death came. Only father and I remain in the house, and he drinks ever more and he adds again and again the figures in his book. W have sent nothing out, not one pound of raw wool, not one bolt of cloth, no one has come into town since St. Boniface’s Day. I stay in my room while it’s light…the smell oozed from every shop, every house, no one but moved in the streets. Birds circled overhead, afraid to light. In the center of the street, the sewage was green, festooned with flies.
Near dePoitier’s shop we heard shouting. Then a sharper roar. A crack.
“Christ, let’s go,” Lance hissed in my ear.