The Daily Soul

ME OF LITTLE FAITH
By Lewis Black
Riverhead, 240 pages, $24.95

LEWIS BLACK IS AN INDIGNANT Paddy Chayefsky character come to screaming, sputtering life, but he has a sneaking admiration for a truly audacious con artist. Jimmy Swaggart won Mr. Black’s heart when the evangelist leaned against his own mother’s tombstone and asked for money, because "I know that she would want you to do that."

"You just had to love a guy who had the big brass nuts to invoke his dead mother as a reason for us to send in our hard-earned cash," writes Mr. Black.

My own tastes run to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and professional wrestling. To live in this country, it helps to have a well-developed taste for the indigenous American grotesque.

Mr. Black’s ever-present outrage and jabbing finger are the necessary punctuation to this survey of religions, communes, popes, higher powers, the whole panoply of cosmic daddy figures we use to compel us to lead a moral life. Most religions are covered except Scientology—because, he writes, "I refuse to consider seriously anything Tom Cruise believes in."

Me of Little Faith—nice title—is an actual book, in that it seems that Mr. Black actually wrote it, as opposed to talked it. In other ways, it’s typical. Like the books of most comedians, it demands to be read while mindful of the voice and rhythm of said comic personality; otherwise, the jokes won’t be funny. A great comic says funny things, a run-of-the-mill comic says things funny.

Mr. Black does both, but in this particular case, he does more of the latter than the former.

He was raised Jewish but has evolved into an atheist who looks askance at most religions’ smug attitude about being the One True Way. "This is all—and I’m going to burst a bubble here—absolute bullshit. … Because that attitude is the spiritual equivalent of having a favorite team you root for. … Because what’s true for you may not be true for the guy standing next to you. We all work differently. Each of us is full of shit in our own special way."

At the same time, there’s just a touch of the spiritual, as when he stands beside the body of his dead brother: "I stared at his ashen, lifeless body and knew that he was gone. Yet his spirit filled the room. I felt it all around me. It was so strong that I knew he was still there. In this moment of extreme loss, I was comforted by him, by his presence. I never expected that."

Mostly, though Mr. Black steers away from the serious. He mentions that Hebrew "is truly a language of phlegm," and pays tribute to the courtly, retiring Amish: "How have they managed to do it? And to do it without bothering anybody? It’s astonishing. Memo to all other religions: Watch and learn. Now."

I’ve seen Lewis Black perform a couple of times and would happily pay cash money to see him again—or for that matter, read him again. My only problem with Me of Little Faith is that, while it isn’t a long book, it still has some padding, particularly a play that Mr. Black wrote for the Public Theater in 1981, which hasn’t aged well.

That said, I laughed out loud a half-dozen times—not Mark Twain, but in these deracinated times, good enough.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at seyman@observer.com.