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David Maine: The Preservationist


The Preservationist

Author: David Maine
Publisher: St. Martin’s

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David Maine's elaboration on the story of Noah's ark could be considered irreverent, but it's far from a demythologization. After all, this is the story of linked miracles—the flood itself, the gathering and transportation of innumerable animals, the preparation of an enormous vessel in advance of the deluge. To tell this story at all is to assume some serious supernatural involvement.

Of course, the God who talks to Noe (Maine uses spellings from the 16th-century Douay Bible) isn't a friendly Sunday-school deity. Most of Noe's family—and even the patriarch himself, in his more honest moments—see this God in stark Old Testament terms: cryptic, capricious, wrathful, destructive, and prone to holding innocent children accountable for arbitrary "sins" of their fathers, like laughing at drunk naked Grandpa. But willful, irrational deities must be obeyed, maybe more so than the reasonable, moral God bequeathed to Christianity centuries later by Greek philosophy.

The Preservationist cleverly, often movingly, re-imagines the Genesis story through the first-person voices of Noe's family, as well as third-person narration centered on Noe himself. The most startling portraits are those of Noe's sons' wives, with their foreign origins, their proto-feminist empowerment (bewildering to their husbands), and their pragmatic attitude toward Yahweh-worship. The sons, in turn, deal clumsily with their relationship to an elderly, distant, oblique father. Sem, for example (modern Bible readers know him as Shem), becomes obsessed with omens and signs, certain that the future and human fate can somehow be read from nature. Every bird-wing flap and errant wave-spray becomes a coded guide to "how to do better," the lesson Sem feels God is trying to teach.

In the end, this is a family story, maybe the family story. God orders Noe's spawn to repopulate the earth, and that makes all of humanity part of this extended, diverse, resentful, bickering, grudging family. Maine extends his tale past Genesis' license, into the new lands the sons occupy with their broods. There, subsistence is a cooperative venture between men and women, old and young. Whatever divisions and conflicts arose in the antediluvian world, causing the divine catastrophe, will arise again; for the moment, however, there's a glowing sense of shared adventure. Even Noe, unable to produce more offspring to fill the empty earth, fills his wife with joy instead by the simple act of saying her name. (Throughout the book, she is simply The Wife; Genesis doesn't name her.) Relationships between humanity and God remain frustratingly truncated and one-sided, but relationships between humans flow and flourish, then and now.