This Week's Reads

Max Barry and Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet.

Jennifer Government

By Max Barry (Vintage, $12.95)

Last week, Pepsi threatened to pull advertising from next year's Super Bowl unless they were assured that nothing resembling sun-shaped-shield-gate would ever again corrupt the innocent eyes of consumerist America. If Max Barry were halftime coordinator, Pepsi, Viacom, and Virgin would've commissioned the NRA to "triangulate" Janet Jackson right in the middle of her medley, posthumously driving her diminishing sales through the roof and providing an unforgettable cola-commercial commemoration.

In Government's not-too-distant future, these kinds of corporate synergies happen all the time, usually with far higher body counts. The end of taxation as we know it has not only crippled the federal government (now privatized) but driven shark-eat-shark capitalism to a degree where the sharks happily adopt their employers' monikers as their own surnames.

Marketing VP John Nike—think Agent Smith—is among the new world order's most cunning and cutthroat "forward thinkers." Underproduction of Nike's Mercury model already has the 18–49 demo salivating, but John figures that's not good enough. Knock off a couple of the kids at the mall, pin it on gangs, and the company wins the ultimate intangible: street cred.

So begins Government's merciless corporate satire. John enlists lowly, desperate "merchandise distribution officer" Hack Nike to do the dirty work; the bar-code-tattooed heroine, Ms. Government—think Sydney Bristow—tries to stop them; and the NRA executes a little inconvenient "subcontracting."

This novel, new in paper, would make a hell of a smart, timely, big-budget action-movie adaptation—except that Nike, McDonald's, Pepsi, Mitsui, and ExxonMobil would never allow it. As a satirist, however, Barry doesn't have to worry about selling favorable product placements in his book; it's more like he's taken those brands hostage in his pages, with no intention of letting them go. ANDREW BONAZELLI

Max Barry will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 13.

Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible

By Peter Manseau & Jeff Sharlet (Free Press, $25)

However else you might describe it, this ambitious collection of postmod biblical exegesis and on-the-road epiphany stories doesn't exactly come off as "heretical." For the audience to whom it's pitched, weaned as they are on McSweeney's and This American Life, heresy would have been if co-authors Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet had actually tried to find a philosophy for our times within centuries-old religious tradition itself—without first seeking to "blow it up," "recast it," etc. Such East Village apostasy likely would have gotten them thrown out of the Moth reading series.

Instead, Manseau and Sharlet adopt an outlook much more conventional to our times—if not yet codified into dogma—in which there's zero tolerance for any claims of objective "truth" and in which spirituality is sought from a kind of grab bag of nondenominational grooviness (the quirkier the better). As they hit the road in their rusty Ford to learn more about current American religiosity, the authors do not head for those terminally square suburban mega-churches where America's current religious revival is actually taking place. No, these dharma bums travel a more predictable, romantically seedy circuit of rest stops, diners, tattoo parlors, and strip joints, whose denizens serve up a rich slop of spiritual insight.

Occasionally there are fragments of genuine depth in these sometimes-random, sometimes-premeditated roadside encounters. A chapter following an eloquent storm chaser across Oklahoma achieves some touching resonance. ("I think the world is as the storms are," says the man. "It is. There's not even an agenda. There's just a tremendous amount of force.") A visit to a philosophical Texas cattleman during calving season is quite beautiful. But in too many of these vignettes, the authors disguise banality with an excess of poetical feeling and claim a falsely intimate understanding of people they've barely met.

These guys are always first-rate stylists, and they do an extremely impressive job of shaping each of their 13 roadside narratives (which they call Psalms) in original, unconventional ways. Yet that writerly skill seems more suspect than useful, starting with the slick gibberish of the book's god-awful introduction: "We were looking not so much for a sacred show-and-tell as for a holy-rolling striptease, revelations as an end in itself"—whatever that means. They're glib enough to make a Meg Ryan movie sound deep.

The other half of Buddha, in which 13 writers each give their spin on an individual book from the Bible, though a terrific idea, is similarly uneven. Among these essays, creative nonfictions, stories, and satires, Rick Moody's reimagination of Jonah as a hapless, kosher-keeping, closeted homosexual from Queens is poignant and hilarious. Peter Trach-tenberg gives a grimly clever take on Job using one-liners and Venn diagrams.

But several of these chapters, which alternate with Manseau and Sharlet's odyssey, are stunningly pointless and marked by a self-righteous obsession with suffering and injustice. The usually intelligent Francine Prose seems to think she's the only one who's noticed the grisly fate meted out to the Egyptians in the Exodus story celebrated at Passover.

Not to be a Pollyanna, but if we're going to talk about God in hip, contemporary terms, aren't there at least one or two things for which we ought to give him, you know, big ups? MARK D. FEFER

Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 18; and, with contributor Peter Trachtenberg, at Zeitgeist Coffee (161 S. Jackson St., 206-583-0497), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 19.

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