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The Preservationist
by David Maine
St. Martin's Press, 2004

review by John Tintera

Modern scholarship has laid waste to pretty much every miracle story found in the bible: creation in six days, the parting of the Red Sea, the falling of the walls of Jericho, and the stopping of the sun. Even the resurrection has a scientific explanation these days. One story that hasn’t fared so badly is that of Noah and the Ark. There are actually several independent accounts of the epic flood extant from the ancient world. Scholars agree, however, that the flood could not have been as all-encompassing as that found in Genesis. In The Preservationist, David Maine shows us that the debate about whether and how the flood happened is pretty much beside the point.

Each chapter of The Preservationist leads off with a verse from Genesis which is then amplified to give it flesh and blood. In a novel that offers many small pleasures, the most significant is the bringing to life of Noah. According to Genesis, Noah was 600 years old when the rains began. In Maine’s hands, Noah is a wizened bag of bones and just about the crankiest old coot you could ever imagine. This is especially evident in his relationship with his wife, a woman about 550 years his junior. Noah goes for days without paying attention to her at all, and, by her own telling, thinks of her as no more than a piece of chattel.

Maine also gives us a finely imaginative, yet somewhat tongue-in-cheek rendering of Noah’s relationship with God. Throughout his neighborhood, Noah is known as a man who has visions. When God finally decides that he needs to destroy the world with a flood, he comes to Noah as a voice in his head. What’s funny is that when God speaks to Noah, he sounds pretty much like the voice of God you might hear in a TV sitcom. In addition, God gives no more instruction about how to accomplish such a large task than what we see in the bible. It’s left to Noah (actually, he pretty much delegates all of the work to his children) to figure out how to craft the gigantic ship and gather all the animals from the ends of the earth. Of course, Noah lives in the desert and gathering wood and pitch to make a boat the size of three football fields is no easy feat. Nor is figuring out how to transport wild lions, tigers, and elephants from far-away lands. All of this is accomplished, however, and much more, through a combination of human ingenuity and help from Above.

One of the striking things about the account of Noah in Genesis (at least to modern ears) is that none of the women are named. Maine, who clearly has a feminist sensibility, plays upon the misogyny of the Bible by simply referring to Noah’s wife as ‘the wife.’ At the same time, Noah’s daughters-in-law are purposefully given names by Maine and major roles in the narrative. His playfulness with the names and roles helps Maine raise awareness of women’s place in ancient society (i.e. they did most of the work and held very little of the power) without hitting us over the head with it.

The one criticism I have with The Preservationist is that it does not go beyond the traditionalist explanation for why God felt it necessary to bring on the flood. In one chapter we meet a group of people that, with construction on the ark underway, have come out from the local village to mock Noah. As some in the crowd are heckling him, others are consorting with a prostitute right out in the open. The scene has a funny, carnivalesque feel to it, yet this is all the evidence given as to why humanity needed to be destroyed. On the other hand, Maine does a good job of showing us the challenges and hardships that Noah faced as a prophet and disciple of the Lord. The Preservationist has much value as a contemporary parable of the spiritual life, though readers will have to look elsewhere for an up-to-date portrait of God.

Read an excerpt

Copyright ©2004 John Tintera

The Preservationist

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