generally fall on a spectrum from militant to utterly disinterested, but some,
like New Yorker Oliver Broudy, truly care about religious faith. To their
immense credit, they tend to be actively curious listeners with an overt
willingness to suspend disbelief and approach the faithful with the peace
offering of an open mind, in an attempt to understand better how the other half
Broudy is fast becoming the essayist of record for such generous atheism.
In the past eighteen months, his Kindle Singles have explored this theme through
the lenses of three unique narratives, building acohesive body
of work that portends Broudy's emerging mastery of the long-form, high-stakes,
The Saint (also
available in Spanish as El Santo) profiles James Otis--a wealthy Gandhi devotee and collector of Mahatma-related
memorabilia--a seemingly routine journalism gig that takes
Broudy halfway around the world and through a whiplashing gauntlet of emotional
crests and troughs. Forced to play friend, protector, fixer, PR agent, and a
host of other duties on Otis's behalf, Broudy weathers lies, danger, and difficult
self-discovery, emerging from his Gotham ennui with a tale that succeeds as
profile, travelogue, and tale of true adventure.
On its surface, The Codex is a coyly unfolding narrative
of Broudy's trip to Prague in pursuit of the meaning of a strange book, "a
book so explicit that it would be banned by any public library, a book whose
pages chronicled the extinction of mystery, and at the same time spawned new
mysteries just by existing." Featuring an outspoken cosmetic surgeon--a
mysterious artist of the female form who may provide the key to Broudy's own mixed
feeling about adulthood--it employs gorgeous prose, a keen succession of nested
structures, and a parade of scalping insights into modern life.
Most recently, The Convert--our top pick for the
Best Kindle Singles of 2012--explores one man's brutal "odyssey from atheism to belief." Erin
Mounsey is a survivor of horrific burns whose backstory is widely available
online, and whose eventual conversion must rank as one of the most dramatic
since that of St. Paul himself. Broudy's novella-length profile reads as if it
were almost palpably difficult for him--as an atheist--to write, and yet it's so
rich, virtuosic, and memorable that the temptation to shout its highlights from
the rooftops faces off against the contrary desire to give almost nothing away,
the better to let interested readers discover its deep well of poignantly challenging
charms for themselves.
All told, Broudy
remains a non-believer. But he's no Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens: no
dismissive sneering here. Rather, Broudy wants to understand, and it's this
desire--realized in sinuous prose and wonderfully unexpected insights--that
distinguishes his extended essays. If there's a more accomplished chronicler of
existential ambivalence alive today, please bring him or her to my attention.
In the meantime, I'm much more interested in reading Oliver Broudy's
next failure than most contemporary essayists' next personal bests.