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Robert Coover: The Origin of the Brunists

This was Coover’s first novel and what a novel it is. It was out of print for a while but, fortunately, is back in print in both the US and UK. Giovanni Bruno (we immediately think of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake as a heretic) is, as Coover calls him, a coalminer-visionary. There is an explosion in a coal-mine in Western Pennsylvania. Ninety-seven die – and, in many cases, Coover gives us a description of their last moments – and one survives – Bruno. When he comes out of his coma, Bruno tells how the Virgin visited him in the mine in the form of a white bird. Very soon a cult develops around Bruno, with the white bird as their symbol.

Coover gives a wonderful portrait of a small, depressed Pennsylvania town – the effects of and the reaction to the closing of the mine after the accident, the Black Hand gang (kids causing trouble), the West Condon Common Sense Committee and hovering behind it all Bruno, his daughter, Marcella, and the Brunist cult. And then the Brunists predict the end of the world. The more conventional West Condonians were already not very enthusiastic about the Brunists and this really sets them off, leading to a violent confrontation but also to a new religion!

It is impossible to convey the power of this book in a simple summary of this nature. Suffice it to say that this does not read like your typical first novel. Coover magnificently manages to convey both sides without showing too much sympathy for either. He also manages to make the new religion seem to have some rationale behind it, unlike the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and other cults that were to follow.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by Putnam