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Author Robert Coover battles fundamentalist fervor

Whether at the helm of the International Writers Project, protecting endangered, dissident writers, or penning his many novels, 82-year-old Robert Coover has "done what I can over my life to keep fundamentalism at bay."

Coover's latest novel, "The Brunist Day of Wrath," tracks the rise of a cult whose founder was the sole survivor of a coal-mining disaster. This unremarkable man, Bruno, was soon considered a divine messenger, saved to bring the message of the impending end of the world.

Coover will sign and read from his novel at 7 p.m. Monday at Southern Oregon University's Schneider Museum of Art. It is free and open to the public.

Coover was brought here by the Chautauqua Poets & Writers and by Robert Arellano, director of SOU's Emerging Media & Digital Arts Department.

Arellano was a longtime colleague of Coover's at Brown University. The two created the International Writers Project, bringing writers to safety in America from China, Syria, Uganda, Lebanon and other nations with religious persecution, Coover said in a phone interview.

The 1,000-page book is a sequel to "The Origin of the Brunists," which Coover published in 1966 as a push-back against increasing evangelical fervor, he says. In 2002, he started the new book, published by Dzanc Books, as a response to the election of George W. Bush and a rise in American fundamentalism, as well as the Taliban and radical Islam.

"That really started me thinking," Coover says. "It's always present in human interaction as a disruptive and dangerous force, one that makes dialogue difficult ... one that in the past has led to world wars."

His 1966 novel won the William Faulkner Foundation's award for Notable First Novel.

Coover's style is hyper-realistic, placing the reader inside the minds of an array of characters, letting all speak their true feelings so readers understand how they got to be who they are, he says, and playing no favorites.

"I'm a born realist. I get inside their heads. I was accused in the first book of making my (bad-guy) characters too sympathetic, especially Richard Nixon, who narrated the book," he notes. "So the fundamentalists are all represented by their genuine voices. They are really nice people, not treated as villains."

Coover has published 14 novels, three books of short fiction and a collection of plays since 1966. Reflecting on his formative influences, Coover says his father was a journalist and his grandfather a Presbyterian minister — "sort of fundamentalist, but a kind person. I lived with fundamentalist discourse, so I knew what it was and what it could do and its dangerous potential."

The motivations of his fundamentalist characters vary, but they have in common "a huge dissatisfaction with life itself, being poor and abused, but the fundamentalist ideas give them strength, a sense of martyrdom ... and an elevation by being associated with these people."

The mine disaster and his understanding of a mining community come from writing for his father's newspaper, where he covered an actual mine disaster, even seeing families come to a gym to identify charred and mangled bodies.

"I was sitting there watching this and started thinking, what if one guy got divinely saved and felt he had a mission to do, a message to deliver to the world? I got fascinated with the idea and put it in my notebook and it developed into these books."

Arellano, himself a novelist, worked with Coover for 15 years, organizing 10 writers' conferences.

"It's the right time," says Arellano, "to look at religious fanaticism again. His book is a devastating read because it cuts so close to the bone of truth. It's not an easy read, I mean in the psychic sense."

The book has been excerpted in Harper's and Kenyon Review. A reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, who noted the book's anguish-fueled rage, sex and chaos, added, "it's the best, most impressive novel I've read in years."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.