Towing Jehovah, James Morrow

Harcourt Brace, 1994, 371 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-15-190919-9

The famous German philosopher (and occasional smart-ass) Frederick Nietzche once said, in his amusingly Teutonic way of his, “God is dead”. I bet he never expected anyone to take him so literally than James Morrow in Towing Jehovah.

In it, the God actually croaks, dies, passes away (end up being no more) and his body is found floating in the Atlantic Ocean not far away from central Africa. The Catholic Church, naturally, is concerned. Not only does most of the theological corpus pass away along with Him, but the disposition of His two-miles-long remains poses a few non-trivial practical challenges. So that’s how disgraced supertanker captain Anthony Van Horne is contacted by an angel to carry God’s body to its eternal resting place; a specially-constructed tomb in the eternal ice of the Arctic Circle.

Before long, readers are privy to such unique scenes as plotting the careful displacement of an iceberg-sized cadaver, hooking up towing chains to God’s ear bones and fighting off sharks around His body with rocket launchers. It get weirder after that, as Atlantis pops up and World War 2 re-enactment societies are hired by militant atheists to sink God’s body.

From this fantastical premise, you would be entirely justified to expect a wacky treatment of the story, with plenty of silly hijinks and uproarious punchlines. That’s not what Morrow had in mind, however, and so the first and final thirds of the books are written in a mode that almost brings to mind the usual dry technothriller à la Clancy. (Myself, I was reminded of Preston and Lincoln’s The Ice Limit) Tons of realistic details ground the story’s initial whopper in hard believability. It’s an unusual choice, and an effective one; whenever Morrow departs from it in mid-book for the Atlantis sequence, the book loses some of its interest.

In many ways, the fantastical spectacle of a two-mile-long body of God is weird enough to have no need for extra strangeness. Whether they’re driving across His body in a jeep, dancing in His bellybutton or try to bomb the entirety of His body, our characters are too close to insanity as it is. Not that it stops them from discussing profound theological issues in what I thought was a witty fashion. “What if you could prove that God doesn’t exist?” is one of the less-complex questions discussed.

It’s all joyously irreverent, of course. Not only is Morrow lampooning the biggest target of all, but he also allows equal-offense time to atheists and other unbelievers through the Central Park West Enlightenment League, a dysfunctional bunch of irreducible skeptics who arrange for the disappearance of the most convincing proof faith can have. Don’t worry; whatever your own convictions, you’ll certainly find something to be offended about in this novel. And yet, even as you’re scandalized, you’ll be amused: Towing Jehovah is no constant laugh-riot, but it’s a steady giggler.

Best of all, maybe, is that Towing Jehovah is reader-friendly to the highest degree, with limpid writing, complex characters and occasional examination of deeper issues without too much guilt. The ideas keep on coming, as do the unorthodox scenes and character-driven twists. Some late-minute appearances are contrived, but they heighten the tension quite effectively. It’s a solid and satisfying read; it’s no accident if it won the World Fantasy Award in 1994. Chances are that you’ll enjoy it too.

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