The problem with using words like mesmerizing, outstanding, and powerful to describe a novel is that a few generations of lazy reviewers have rendered them almost meaningless. That being said, if we go back to the dictionary and apply their original meaning minus the damage caused by overuse, they perfectly describe Robert Kloss’ The Revelator. At once a poetic exploration of religious fervor/madness and a fictionalized retelling of Joseph Smith’s life and the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Revelator is an impressive, hyperviolent, emotionally gritty narrative that drops readers in nineteenth-century America and then drags them through the mud and blood that Smith and his followers went through and spilled.
The Revelator kicks off when Joseph is a young orphan growing up on the streets, where he spends his time among drunks, prostitutes, and con men before finally being taken in by a butcher. Despite seemingly enjoying the nights and vices that came with these wild days, he dreams of something better, so he begins to preach. As his small congregation works, Joseph marries the young daughter of the butcher with whom he’d been working and living. The young couple runs away and enters the wilderness, where Joseph’s bizarre visions, especially one where he sees and hears a dark Beast, soon dominate his thoughts and give him a sense of purpose. When they rejoin civilization, Joseph once again begins to preach and builds a relatively large following of people who believe the golden plates he claims to have are delivering the Almighty’s message to him. From there, the preacher’s followers multiply, he builds a settlement for them, convinces them that taking on multiple wives is the what the Lord wants, and deals with varying degrees of success with the individuals and groups that rise against him until the violence becomes too much.
The first thing that makes The Revelator a standout novel is the mixture of brutality and the sense of proximity that comes from the second-person narration, which is something that was risky to begin with and Kloss somehow pulled off brilliantly. The biblical language gives the narrative a strange beauty that brings to mind Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, but the entire novel is full of a viciousness and gore that McCarthy only delivered in short bursts. Furthermore, Kloss keeps his story at the verge of surrealism via the visions of the Beast and the mysterious black mountain that can always be seen in the distance. This makes everything that happens simultaneously very real and slightly tinged with something impossibly darker and more menacing:
You woke alone, as a cold wind blew through the opened tent. Your wife laid before the tent, bloodied and nude from the waist down, lines of soot drawn across her throat, her chest, while her eyes glazed with a child’s simplicity and confusion. Her clothing slashed away and cast to the snow. You gathered her into your arms and you did not scream and you did not sob. Inside the tent you wrapped her in blankets and skins. And she cried for her child, so you returned to the snows, and there the cord, shriveled and cut away, coiled in the red-soaked snow. There you dug until your hands numbed, raw and blood dripping. And you saw no bloody tracks of man or animal. And no wailing cry did you hear, and no child did you find.
Having a religious zealot as the main character was a move as risky as the second-person narration, but it works just as well. Joseph is an unlikeable character whose flaws are constantly on display. He’s a mediocre father, an awful, misogynistic husband, and a man who seemed to embrace much of what was wrong with the society he was brought up in. In a way, he embodies the vilest characteristics of the desperate hunger for expansion and ruthless thirst for domination that came with adhering to Manifest Destiny. However, the gruesome events he has to endure and the small victories he enjoys make him bearable even when all of what he preaches against were the same things bigots preach against today:
And you preached against all other preachers and prophets and teachings. And you preached against those who worshipped the trees as gods. And you preached against those who shook and foamed and refused His commandment to multiply. And you preached against those who preached in churches and in temples and you preached against those who called for the liberation and elevation of women, and you preached against those who called for the freedom of the African slave.
In a way, Kloss frames the life of settlers in harshness and the kind of blood-soaked desperation that makes religious fanaticism almost understandable, as if it was the only option other than suicide or madness. In this context, Joseph is a figure that doesn’t differ much from those around him except for his visions and talent for preaching. This last element is what ultimately turns The Revelator into one of the best novels published in 2015:
There will be earthquakes and fires and there will be plagues, and bodies will swell fat with blackness and cough blood as thick and putrid as oil. And whatever man has domesticated will turn against him and assault him. Now man will fall against the gnashing of his hounds and his horses and his mules and his oxen, coughing blood and broken teeth beneath the furious trample of their hooves and teeth. And the creature of the Almighty will sharpen its horrid sickle. And bodies will fill the streets. And ships and will drift with the dead weight of entire crews. And mothers will forsake their children. And wives will denounce their husbands. And entire populations will be sought out and murdered as scapegoats. And men will lash themselves with iron-spiked whips, spreading the ground with their blood, crying out, “Mercy! Mercy!” and “Peace! Peace!”
Despite doing many things right, The Revelator is not an easy read. Pervasive brutality, dead babies, bloated corpses, and the plethora of instances in which humanity is shown at its most unflattering, animalistic, cruel moments can make this a tough read, but those uncomfortable moments are a very small price to pay for reading such an outstanding novel.
by Robert Kloss
Unnamed Press; 256 p.