American Gospel: A Novel

Written by Lin Enger
Review by Jill E. Marshall

In American Gospel, the biblically named Enoch has a near-death experience and a vision of the Rapture, an event in which Christians believe that God will snatch them up into heaven before destroying the earth. Following the vision, Enoch announces on the radio the precise day it will happen, so that pilgrims and media will stream to his farm and religious compound in Minnesota. Three people, in particular, he seeks out because he saw them in the vision and wants them to be raptured along with him: his unbelieving son Peter, a journalist in New York; the believing hometown girl turned Hollywood actress, Melanie; and their son, Willie, born when Peter and Melanie were teenagers and adopted by another family.

The novel takes place in the 1970s, and Peter’s journalism gives thin glimpses of the politics and culture of the time. For example, Peter is supposed to report on Nixon’s imminent resignation, but instead he travels to Minnesota to report on his father and the commune’s activity. The history is a backdrop, and if you excised the few references to Nixon, you wouldn’t know when the book takes place. I would have liked more exploration of how the political and cultural environment in the United States, and in the Midwest in particular, influenced cults or movements like Enoch’s.

The driving question of the book is: Will the Rapture happen as Enoch predicts? The movement to the culmination was slow, but the end was surprisingly satisfying. The novel probes how much one can be certain of an experience of the divine or supernatural, where one can place faith, and how interpretation enters any religious belief or act.