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book review

Will Ferguson

A few years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a British TV show that mashed his 1970s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, with American Idol. There were mass auditions and vote-offs, a round on "Superstar Island" (in Essex, who knew?) and a cornucopia of Stairway to Heaven renditions. The show's appeal was that anyone – even you! – could be Jesus. In The Shoe on the Roof, Will Ferguson's latest novel, there are would-be Christs aplenty, too. Three of them wander around Boston, each convinced he's God's only child. The upshot is a dark and amusing mix, with a contemplative underside.

Like the Superstar TV show, this book combines familiar tropes. Thomas Rosanoff, a brain-research grad student, is dumped by his pixie-ish girlfriend, Amy, after she tests his acceptance of her Catholic beliefs with a pregnancy scare. Flailing for a grand rom-com gesture, he decides to kidnap and heal Amy's mentally ill brother, a lapsed priest who believes he's the Second Coming. When Thomas runs into two more such believers, he decides he can fix them all – and make his scientific name – by forcing them to confront one another and thus, their real identities. Will the real Jesus ever stand up?

This may all sound silly, but it isn't. Ferguson certainly has a broad comic streak (he's a three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour), and there are many funny moments (instead of chasing the moneylenders from the Temple, for instance, these Messiahs run the drug dealers out of their squat). But here, the author's true interest is in going into the dark, interrogating the nature of mind, faith, love and reality, and taking the novel down a philosophical road. If you like Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, you'll enjoy the metaphysical questioning here, as well as teasing out its similar parallels with saints and biblical figures (our hero is quite a Doubting Thomas, for one).

Thomas is also a writerly experiment: can a cocky, less-than-pleasant personality carry a 384-page novel? Ferguson succeeds by taking him apart slowly, turning him from glib seducer of soccer moms into a young man undone by things he can't understand. Moreover, the character is a literal experiment, observed Big Brother-style since earliest childhood by his famous psychiatrist dad, which adds to his pathos. His reason for trying to help the Christs may be thin, but it leads him far into himself. As his story develops, the novel's appeal grows; his journey into that inner wilderness ends up being a satisfying and honest arc. Maybe he's a Jesus, too.

Authors aren't averse to thinking of themselves as godlike, and Ferguson riffs on this idea by dropping in an omniscient comment now and then, asking readers not to judge Thomas "too harshly" for driving a Prius, for instance. These are nice reminders of the philosophical knots Thomas comes to face; Amy's brother tells him that praying is seen as A-OK, but "if God ever answers you, they say you're crazy." There's even a murder-mystery subplot, which feels a little like a side street, although it does emphasize the way absolute power corrupts absolutely, one of the book's major points.

Another is that absolute certainty, whether scientific or religious, does the same thing. At first, Thomas is all brain, all the time. Ferguson outstandingly describes neurobiology and the physical brain's beauties and horrors; for instance, "Memory is the hotel curtain that never completely closes," letting in just enough light to "ruin your sleep." Amy, on the other hand, is pure art and spirit, and verges somewhat on the unreal. Although the author may have made her this way as a contrast to Thomas, readers might wish she had a little more oomph as a character (and Thomas's father a little less). But Ferguson is a skillful and original writer, and over all, the novel is full of life.

So, in this age-old fight between science and faith, are there any conclusions? Is a Personal Saviour, moulded to his individual needs and desires, what Thomas – and everyone – truly wants? At one point, he goes head-to-head with Eli, one of the Christs, over whether Connecticut is in the Holy Land. Thomas says it isn't, and Eli replies, "That's just your opinion." Thomas argues that opinions aren't facts, but soon finds himself confused as to whether that's actually the case (and Eli turns out to be right, by the way). The Shoe on the Roof's lasting strength is in such sly jabs at the "alternative facts" and deep divisions we're now reckoning with, making it a tale for the times.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the First Novel Award.

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