MOORHEAD, Minn. — Lin Enger’s new novel, “American Gospel,” opens with a doomsday prophecy set in the final days of the Richard Nixon presidency in August 1974.
The author doesn’t see it as a snapshot in time as much as a reflection of the world today — which is a bit prophetic itself as he started the book three decades ago.
Enger, who teaches English at Minnesota State University Moorhead, first had an idea for a story about someone predicting the rapture, but he didn’t like where it was going. It wasn’t until about five years ago that he revisited the idea.
“This novel, to me, feels timely,” Enger says. “There’s a desire for simple, clean answers to deeply rooted problems. Those people who project to have those answers have a large and enthusiastic following ... I think my book is a microcosm on the willingness of people to seek those simple answers."
He introduces readers to Enoch, an elderly preacher in rural, northern Minnesota and on the first page, announces the character will die within minutes. His heart indeed stops, but he is resuscitated by a passing stranger who he sees as an angel and goes on to claim a vision of the rapture to come in 10 days.
Enoch’s son, Peter, flies in from New York where he was waiting to get his big break, an interview with Alexander Haig, White House chief of staff and potentially the next American president. The father and son have a strained relationship, but Peter reluctantly agrees to stay in Minnesota so he can report on his rapture prophecy.
Peter’s old girlfriend, Melanie, returns for the end of days as well. An Oscar-winning actress, she is disillusioned with Hollywood and seeks comfort in pills and the prospect of a heavenly judgment.
While that storyline is pure fiction, Enger says the root of it — the fascination with prophecies — is true to the 1970s.
“It was a decade when people were obsessed with these predictions and this growing concern over nuclear war,” he says, pointing out that American evangelist Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic book, “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” was the bestselling nonfiction book of the decade.
Mix that with the very real scandals that prompted Nixon’s resignation to heighten the drama of that time.
“That was such a wakeup call for our country when he resigned. He’d been pulling the wool over our eyes for a long time,” Enger says.
Politics and faith are two of the prominent themes of the book, but he doesn’t take a partisan approach to either topic.
“I am trying to explore questions I have,” he says. “It isn’t meant to undermine faith, but explore what about faith we’re drawn to. The difference between faith and dogma and faith as mystery. For me, it moves the reader to the mystery of faith, the power of faith is the mystery, but not crystal-clear answers.”
Enger was raised Lutheran, and while he belongs to a church, he doesn’t regularly attend services. Still, he considers himself a man of faith, even if he questions how some Christians use their beliefs.
“I have days with relatively little patience for a large swath of the American church,” he says. “Leadership in the church often emphasizes American values over Gospel virtues.”
That said, he doesn’t see Enoch as a bad person.
“But he needs to be the one with a crystal-clear answer,” Enger says.
Just as Enoch sees the rapture as his defining moment, Peter feels the same way about his chance to land a big story. Similarities and distances between fathers and sons are a recurring theme in Enger’s previous novels, "The High Divide" and "Undiscovered Country." The latter, his 2008 debut, is being reprinted for paperback for the first time.
He doesn’t see it as a conscious theme, adding that his own father was a good man, but somewhat distant.
“I’m always aware as a parent of the many ways I fall short,” he says.
Just as there are some familiar themes in his work, the outdoors, particularly in his home state, Minnesota, also plays a big role.
“I feel like my fiction rises out of places as much as anything,” he says. “The places I spend time in and love, they birthed the stories. It’s the source of the stories.”
In “American Gospel,” after Peter’s story breaks and word gets out that the celebrity actress is at Enoch’s for his end-of-days observation, a wild array of characters descends on the Minnesota lake compound, some bringing their own secrets that connect them to others.
“I felt like I was painting myself into a corner. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get out of it,” Enger says. “That’s the great pleasure of writing fiction. You have the pleasure of watching things spin out in this invented world of yours. It’s a lot of fun.”
Virtual book talk
Lin Enger will read from and discuss his novel, “American Gospel,” during a virtual book talk 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8. The event will be live on the Lake Agassiz Regional Library Facebook page at facebook.com/larlmn.