Awriter always feels God’s shadow. Even John Updike was moved to an apologetic humble-brag when asked why he wrote so much. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise,” Updike once said in an interview, “and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing.”
Stephen King has taken a more expansive — and less apologetic — approach to describing the world. In book after book, he has poked, prodded, and thumbed open loopholes in the fabric of reality. He has questioned the mysterious, and then expanded on it in novels of fabulous and intensely wrought prose.
Like Kafka and Lovecraft, he has used realism to the opposite effect of Updike: not to reflect and praise reality, but to question its very limits.
In so many of King’s fictions, something ominous lies on the other side of reality — none of it good. Like a warning, transgression leads to bad things: Carrie’s telekinesis opens up a Pandora’s box of woe; Jack Torrance’s desire for writerly transcendence in “The Shining” leads to a breakdown; the quest for the Dark Tower creates a saga of pain.
In his latest novel, “Revival,” King writes about the hubris of questioning God’s universe in the most direct way yet. The novel tells of Jamie Morton’s five-decade-long relationship with a pastor named Charles Jacobs. He is a strange man, this Mr. Jacobs. For starters, he loves electricity almost as much as he loves God.
“Electricity is one of God’s doorways to the infinite,” he tells children in Sunday school.
In one of the novels creepiest scenes, Jamie recalls meeting the pastor for the first time shortly after his arrival in town. Jacobs looms over him, temporarily blocking out the sun: “All of a sudden there were no kids yelling in the backyard, no records playing upstairs, no banging from the garage. Not a single bird singing.”
Just when a reader expects this novel to go someplace sadly familiar, it takes a fork in the road. Jacobs isn’t a predator, at least not one of a sexual sort. He merely misses his family — having moved to begin his new job ahead of them —
The highlight of the diorama is the moment when a motorized Jesus walks across a tiny lake. The pastor instantly shows Jamie the track on which the figurine travels. “It’s a magic trick!” the boy says. “That’s right,” the pastor replies.
It’s a strange way for a churchman to teach faith, but it turns out Jacobs doesn’t have much of it to share. Not long after they have this conversation, Jacobs’ wife and son die in a hideous car accident. Jacobs, wild with grief, renounces his faith on the pulpit and is subsequently chased out of town.
Before he leaves, Jacobs does something remarkable. Jamie’s brother Conrad loses his voice for unknown reasons. When medical avenues are exhausted, Jacobs offers to help. He straps Conrad into a chair, hooks him up to a voltage machine, zaps him, and his ability to speak returns.
For the rest of “Revival,” these twin incidents — the pastor’s renunciation of his faith and Conrad’s miraculous recovery — hang over Jamie’s meandering life with a strange, mesmerizing potency. This is largely because Jamie turns into the kind of man who needs a renewal every now and then.
Very few writers in America know how to evoke this country’s love of the do-over so well as King. Jamie joins a band at the University of Maine, dips into dope, and then harder stuff. Within a decade he’s waking up at a no-tell motel in Oklahoma with a note under his door from his band mates, who have abandoned him.
Narrating from the present day, Jamie tells his story with the self-loathing and truth-seeking digressions of an addict. He’s mining the past for a sense of meaning, and King beautifully captures the indulgences and doubt, the fixations, that plague a man’s voice when he is engaged in this kind of excavation.
Jacobs figures prominently in the pattern that emerges. The former pastor reappears in Jamie’s life after he hits bottom in Oklahoma. Jacobs happens to be working in the area as a carnie, performing acts of healing with electricity. Jamie is so flabbergasted by the coincidence he lets Pastor Jacobs — now simply Charles Jacobs — put the zapper to him, and miraculously, he too is healed of his addiction.
There’s a strong moral current crackling through King’s fiction, so we know there will be a cost. Nothing good in King’s world comes for free. Anyone who has ever tried to shake smoking, for example, ought to read “Quitters Inc,” King’s 1978 story about the draconian methods a smoking-cessation program uses to ensure results.
In “Revival,” the hitch is that Jacob’s treatment comes with side effects. Some of his patients suffer from nightmares. Others commit suicide. There’s enough of these outliers that Jamie, who has bad dreams of his own, begins to investigate what happens to the people who relapse.
“Revival” is a brave book because it dares to look closely at the way that religion is a fiction, but perhaps a necessary one. It is a moving novel because it shows how religion’s assurances are just that, hardly guarantees of outcome. On that score, there is only one we can count on, and it’s that none of us know what’s coming in the beyond, not even this marvelous novelist.
John Freeman is the editor of “Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York,” available at Orbooks.com.