Have You Met Jesus Yet? (He Might Just Live Next-Door)

The Afterword , by Mike Bryan. Pantheon, 195 pages, $16.

Ye gods, not another novel with footnotes. Not yet another metafiction, the writer writing while gazing at himself as he writes. Not another quasi-autobiographical offering laden with irony.

Well, yes. But Mike Bryan’s The Afterword is somewhat different from the usual 21st-century meta-icons. First, it’s short. Very short, in fact. Second, it isn’t, in the customary sense, a novel at all, but the afterword to a novel called The Deity Next Door that has already broken three longevity records on the New York Times best-seller list, thus prompting the publisher to ask for an afterword for the next edition, an aid for reading groups. And no, the novel does not exist and never will. If all this sounds a little too cute for you, then perhaps it is.

“A new messiah: how does our secular, more or less post-Christian popular culture handle this little problem? … And how does this new deity understand his incredible situation, come to terms with it, and figure out his next move …?” The writer named Mike Bryan-just like Mike Bryan, the author of this book-tells us how he first got the idea for his novel. Details needed to be worked out. Modern Manhattan would be the venue-not only because Mr. Bryan was familiar with it but because Manhattan, these days, is where it’s at. This “possibly Protestant” messiah would have grown up with Ronald Reagan as President and a material-girl Madonna on the airwaves. His name would be Blaine: “a simple, modern, generic, Waspish name with no biblical connotations and minimal cultural aspirations, a name that would implicitly establish both the secular cultural setting and the irony of the new situation.” He’s got a wife, Melanie, and a son, Tim, and he would live in Bryan’s own apartment on the 24th Street side of London Terrace (which has a swimming pool in the basement, in case he needed to walk on water). Blaine and Mike would sit at the same desk working on the same computer, Blaine a software designer and Mike the first-time novelist writing about Blaine, spying on an assortment of neighbors across the way and trying to figure out their next moves.

Blaine, at first, has no idea that he is anything but ordinary. He’s “a nice man, a reliable breadwinner, a dutiful husband, a doting father, Mets fan, left-handed Aquarius, somewhat superstitious, careful to get out of bed on the same side that he got in on-this kind of thing.” But then he performs a miracle: He cures young Tim of cancer. And this starts things in motion, though, it has to be admitted, not very much motion. Jesus had a much more exciting time of it than Blaine does; he performs a few lamp levitations, perfect hoops on the basketball court and so forth-cheap tricks. His major miracle is winning $100,000 at blackjack in Las Vegas, which he guiltily donates to a homeless shelter. He never has a ministry, disciples, enemies who want to kill him or anything else, because he’s far too modest to tell people of his divinity. (This casts more than a little doubt on the popular appeal of The Deity Next Door , but we are in the land of irony here.)

Mike Bryan is a Christian hobbyist. That is, without believing a word of it, he finds Christianity weirdly fascinating-its paradoxes, contradictions and excesses. About a dozen years ago, he (and Mike Bryan the Deity novelist, too) took time off from his regular sportswriter gig to hang out at a Texas Bible college while working on a book about evangelicals ( Chapter and Verse: A Skeptic Revisits Christianity , 1992). Though a professional writer, he is an “amateur” (his own term) at fiction. This book thus has several points that it wants to make. The first, of course, is “What would Jesus do?”, in the wince-inducing slogan. The second is “What does a novelist do?”, and here we follow Mr. Bryan the real-life author observing the trials of Mike Bryan the novelist as he struggles with ideas, tries them out on friends, rejects long passages (related to us first), revises and corrects before publishing his best-seller. If Blaine is the messiah, then Bryan is God: He created Blaine, and indeed every single thing in this book, all its wayward ramblings and ponderings (and it rambles and ponders nearly continuously) as it examines belief and doubt, creation, responsibility and the nature of the divine. “How could Jesus be both God and man?” is an old question. Well, Mr. Bryan (the God of Gods, we might call him) has created a fictional Bryan (God) who in turn creates Blaine-therefore do they not share one being?

This is not exactly a new idea in fiction; one novel that springs to mind from 30-odd years ago is Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (JayHoWaugh, get it?). Mr. Bryan’s problem, I fear, is that there are few religious hobbyists among readers. (Full disclosure: I’m one.) Writers, yes. William Gaddis was one ( The Recognitions is an immense, learned and scatologically funny novel structured on church history), and perhaps Jack Miles is another ( Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God ). But people are mostly of the faith or reject it, or their eyes simply glaze over. This does not bode especially well for Mr. Bryan’s book, which isn’t particularly gripping, though it has a winningly congenial tone and gets off some good lines. (I liked the one about the swimming pool in the basement.) But metafiction with no plot and no payday-if one can call the Crucifixion and Resurrection a payday-is not everyone’s notion of something to curl up with.

On the other hand, Mr. Bryan can take pleasure in the exquisite little package his publisher has given him. Smaller than a rack-size paperback, the book has beautiful creamy paper, elegantly designed margins, a jacket engraving taken from Lynd Ward (who published the wordless novel Gods’ Man in 1929) and set against three different colors of cover. Best of all, separating both chapter breaks and line breaks, there’s a sly and charming series of dingbats (and no, I’m not referring to Edith Bunker; a dingbat is a typographical ornament). These, in context, are the cleverest modern ones I’ve ever seen, and an artist is nowhere credited. Hmmm … a miracle?

Alice K. Turner, the former fiction editor of Playboy, is the author of The History of Hell (Harcourt).