Told through the eyes and experience of Brother August, this disturbing tale of megalomania and submission takes place as a spiritual community in the sparse Arizona desert prepares for the Great Days, a period of enlightenment, to arrive. When Papa, the cult leader, takes a ten-year-old girl, Melody, as his fifth and final wife, some followers resist. But a supreme being cannot accept doubt from his disciples, and resisters are "redirected" into compliance. As Papa's chief aid and spiritual interpreter, Brother August's loyalty to Papa's vision is taken for granted. But August's love for Melody and her mother jolts him from the intoxicating spell of Papa's power, and soon, August's awakening edges this fragile cult to a ferocious breaking point.
Eli gives an overview of the book:
When he stood, his unfurling back ached. For a moment he was dizzy. He stepped away from the group, a match fallen from the box. As he walked toward Papa's trailers half asleep, the river of chanting lifted and carried him. There was something he was supposed to do today, something important. The sun was like a sweaty hand on his neck. His right sandal was loose so he shuffled every few steps to keep it from falling off. The sand sifted in under his toes. He remembered: he had to greet the NewFaces.
The compound was eighteen acres of fields and a scattering of buildings surrounded by a wide necklace of chain-link fencing to keep coyotes and hares out. As he walked through it, he slipped into the baked paths that spiraled through the compound.
It was summer and already the day had become viscous with heat. The same sun that haunted Solomon sent its fury down on the crazed sand between the warehouses and trailers. It would hammer on the shaved heads of the initiates, bleaching the straw hats that snagged on the stubble of their scalps. The flagpole at the entrance gate was rigid as a fork upright in a bowl of thick gruel, but the flag itself sagged, the blue Center spiral hidden in drapes of breathless canvas.
August trudged past the crops: tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kale, chard, basil. Every day the plants threatened to die, drooping their parched leaves near the ground, only to rally at night, lifting themselves again toward the east. The monstrous tendrils of the melon patch had outgrown their grids and now offered watermelons and cantaloupes side by side like undetonated artillery. On the northern perimeter, he passed the pile of stones that had been pulled from the fields, now home to chola lizards that swelled like corpses in the heat.
Summer kept everyone in a reverent silence. After six years August was still surprised by the heat's presence, so merciless it seemed almost deliberate. The air became a heavy drape pierced only by the siren of the cicadas, smothering any excessive movement or bodily urge. Metal objects became rabid: the blades on the hoes and shovels; the latch on the door of the generator shed where the engine and its can of gasoline slept; the brass faucet glinting behind the main-hall that seared any fingertips that grazed it. The chain-link perimeter bit like an electric fence. The oxygen seemed to flee to the upper atmosphere, leaving the initiates to gasp like fish in the heavier gases. At the toilet sheds the flies seemed drugged, pinned against the wood, unwilling to move unless touched, then bumbling slowly through the syrupy air. Reality warped, assuming a pliable sheen.
Near the middle of the compound, past the modified warehouse where the initiates slept, past the crooked boards of the toilet sheds, past the old well and the main-hall, there were eight white trailers arranged in a tight cluster: Papa's quarters.
In the middle of that octagon, Papa was bathing. The tub was an old one, big as a cow with a great rusted patch on one corner where the enamel was knocked away. The claw feet had sunk into the sand. When August came forward, kneeling to bow, Papa was completely submerged, except for his knees pushing out of the water, stubborn and white as icebergs. August rested his forehead on the sand, waiting, trying not to doze. He heard the water bursting as Papa came up. "Namaste, August."
August looked up to see Papa smiling down on him, wet as a newborn with an ancient face. Papa's hair grew so quickly! Already there was a thick silver fuzz bristling over the splendid magnet of his skull. August rubbed the base of his own skull where the dull angle of bone lifted the hairs to scratch reassuringly against his palm. Papa's blue eyes didn't waiver, and again August had the feeling of being discovered, as if everyone else in his life had been looking just past his shoulder.
Once, as a child, he had hidden in the cabinet under the sink while his mother and sister called for him, listening to their desperate phone conversations with his father, with the police: I don't know, he was outside, I don't know. His memory of it was slightly artificial, like black-and-white films that have been retouched with anemic pastels, because it was a story his mother had told and retold during holidays; his Mull mother whom he had not seen for six years, who suffered, brought him into the world of suffering, fed him Mull food and clothed his body, but did not know how to give him peace. Papa knew exactly where he was hiding, and was asking him to come out. It was an honor to be receiving that gaze from the most important spiritual figure since Christ, the cultural catalyst who would bring real lasting change to the entire planet. The Founder. August could feel himself being exposed as Papa's true-sight lit his every cell.
August knew that there were people who had met Papa, yet were not impressed, who had explained the miracles in terms of sleight of hand or science, who called the revelations mass hysteria. He also knew that those people had not allowed themselves to be looked at in this way. They had not been vulnerable or brave enough to be seen. They thought Papa was merely a charismatic man. They were like children covering their own eyes to disappear.
Eli Brown lives on an experimental urban farm in Alameda, California. His writing has appeared in The Cortland Review and Homewrecker: An Adultery Reader. His first novel, The Great Days, won the Fabri Literary Prize.
His upcoming novel, Cinnamon and Gunpowder, will...