The thing about cliches is that they are true. So here is the operative cliche about American Savior: Don't judge a book by its cover.
The premise of the book, as described in the jacket art, is that Jesus Christ is running for president. What could have turned into a smarmy conceit, some kind of condescending one-joke commentary on American politics, turns out to be much more.
American Savior is a wonderful book, with more warmth and depth than you might expect from the jacket-copy synopsis. Jesus is not a cliche, a Homer Simpson in robes. A less skilled and less sensitive writer might have taken him that way. But Roland Merullo plays it fairly straight.
We see the story through the eyes of Russ Thomas, a mid-level TV reporter, and his girlfriend Zelda, a psychologist. Jesus reveals himself slowly, through Russ' stories about a miracle worker doing good deeds. Finally Jesus — looking as if he just stepped out of GQ — summons Russ to a diner so they can talk. Turns out he was fairly pleased with how his first time on Earth went. But now he wants to do things differently. This time, he is running for president, and he needs Russ and Zelda's help.
Merullo treats his Jesus with respect (though that doesn't mean that Jesus doesn't have a great sense of humor), but the mere fact of this book's existence will upset the kind of people thrown into a tizzy by any evidence of Jesus' humanity. But if any novel can break through and reach spiritually inclined readers, this might be the one.
It's a great book for this political season, and the plot is full of twists and turns as the campaign unfurls. (When Zelda finds that she's fallen in love with Jesus, Russ wearily admits, "It's hard for me. It's tough, you know, to compete with God.") Its satire has lasting value because unlike books that might sneer at a cast of characters, this one seems to actually like its major players.
William McKeen teaches journalism at the University of Florida.