David Maine’s retelling of the Biblical story of Noah (Noe, in this telling) and his ark, The Preservationist, is earthy, near-lyric and as tangible as the dung of countless pairs of beasts befouling the lower decks of a floating menagerie, the sharp sour-sweet taste of the first honey-fortified postdiluvian wine, the fervent and frequent shipboard copulation of six people whose loins must eventually repopulate a new-scrubbed creation.
The eye of Maine’s prose does not look away from the undignified parts of the story of the flood (urination, sex in close quarters), the improbable ones (where do they get all those animals or the wood for the ark?), nor does it flinch from asking the most difficult questions about the flood (what kind of creator could seem to care so little for his creation?).
The story is told from the points of view of Noe’s wife, his three sons and their wives. All represent types. The sons, for example, include the callow youth, the unimaginative but devoted servant and the disrespectful but gifted rebel. But all also transcend type to become as genuine as people as are the utterly solid land, the rising sea, the ark, the beasts that Maine’s sparse but effective language conjures.
The women, especially, pop as living, breathing people, and it is their often dry, often lancing observations of their husbands and father-in-law that do the most to challenge the notion that the Yahweh worshipped by Noe could be worth that veneration considering his willingness to wipe out innocent men, women and children (children!) along with the guilty. But it is this very probing that makes the God of this novel all the more real, and the puzzle he presents these survivors all the more agonizingly relevant.
Each chapter is devoted to the first person voice of a character, with the exception of Noe, whose chapters are presented in a third-person omniscient point of view.
This choice by Maine seems odd at first, but as the tale progresses, seems ever more apt as Noe, touched so directly by God, has taken on some of the characteristic remove of God, has receded a few steps further from us into the mystery than his wife, sons and daughters-in-law.
A few of Maine’s language choices also create stumbling blocks early on, only to prove natural as the story progresses and the reader enters the world of the novel more fully. These include his choice to call Noah by the Greek version, Noe, and by his choice to mix an anachronistic blend of contemporary vernacular and imagined period language – “go rut yourself” is a fine example. The Noe choice is especially apt, because it helps us to hear the story as freshly as possible, removing some of the familiarity, and with it some of the preconceived notions as to what the story is about and what it could or should mean.
I have rarely experienced a book as tactilely as I experienced Maine’s The Preservationist, nor, curiously, can I recall recently being as moved toward reverence as I was by Maine’s most delightfully irreverent, or at least baffled-by-reverence, voices (the voices of the wives in the story).