Stephen Billias’ The American Book of the Dead: An Old Favorite Revisited

Nucleomitophobia is an exaggerated fear of being blown to bits by nuclear weapons. Bertie Rupp has it, and it’s driving him crazy. He’s tried meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, and The Society for the Preservation of Mankind. Nothing works, until he hears about The American Book of the Dead, a Zen guide to surviving the nuclear holocaust. Convinced that he must find The Book and learn its secrets if the human race is to endure, Bertie sets out on a desperate search that will take him to Las Vegas and back . . . and involve him in the lives of an ex-nun from Kansas who truly loves him, an old tailor who survived the Nazi holocaust, and a mysterious representative from The Society for the Preservation of Outer Space. It is an odyssey that will lead him through the darkness of impending nuclear war and beyond . . . to Enlightenment.

That back-cover summary (combined with the cover illustration of a slack-jawed hippie gaping at a tiny “bonsai sequoia” tree, surrounded by approving monks) convinced me that I needed to read Stephen Billias’ 1987 novel The American Book of the Dead when I found it in the bookstore at age fourteen. I’ve written about my own nuclear fears, and while they had peaked a few years earlier, I still felt that I could relate to this Bertie Rupp character. I was similarly intrigued by his spiritual search for peace and Enlightenment with a capital E, as I was in the midst of a comparative study of different religions and sorting out many of life’s questions for myself (if I come up with a definitive answer, I’ll let you know).

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

At that age, I was reading science fiction and fantasy paperbacks pretty regularly, and I recognized the publisher, Questar (an imprint of Warner’s Popular Library), having read and enjoyed some of their other genre-stretching offerings already. A front-cover blurb from Harlan Ellison describing TABOTD (as I will henceforth abbreviate it) as “wonderfully bizarre” sealed the deal.

It turned out to be the perfect book for me at the moment; I read it and reread it several times. I thrust it into the hands of friends to read; my dad read it; even some of my teachers read it. Everyone I gave it to seemed to enjoy it. Since then, however, I’ve never met anyone else that read or remembered it. It had only a single printing, as far as I know. Twenty-five years later, I doubted myself: perhaps in my youth I overestimated its quality or originality; perhaps it was too timely, predicated as it was on Cold War nuclear anxiety; maybe it simply wasn’t as good as I remembered.

So, this past week I reread it, and while I can’t deny the possibility that my judgment is compromised by nostalgia, I still found it an imaginative, compassionate, and frequently beautiful book. At the same time, it’s now easier for me to put it into a literary context and make some useful comparisons to other books that are likely to be more familiar to readers.

The first thing that might not be clear from the summary above is that, while Bertie’s experiences are framed as a contemporary version of the Buddha’s journey, TABOTD is an often funny book. The Zen koan, or joke which startles and leads to wisdom, is built into the text of The Book within the book, a mixture of spiritual teaching and modern commercial jargon (“CHANGELESS CHANGE, PRIMORDIAL ESSENCE OF THE GREAT PRIMAL BEGINNING: NEW, IMPROVED, LONGER LASTING” reads one aphorism). The story takes detours which are absurd on the surface but feed into the main plot. Billias makes wry observations on the foibles of humanity, both through his characters and as an omniscient narrator. The tone—whimsical, digressive, drily aware of mortal folly—is strongly indebted to Douglas Adams.

However, whereas The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with the end of the world, TABOTD builds toward it (it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Bertie’s worst fears come true—they are foreshadowed from the beginning). Adams’ protagonist, Arthur Dent, spends about one page grieving after the earth is blown up by aliens, but it’s clear he didn’t leave much behind and the focus is squarely on his adventures. Bertie Rupp, by contrast, is intensely aware of the suffering of the world, human and non-human alike: it is not only for his own sake that he fears the coming war. It’s somewhat more like Adams’ later work, as enamored with the wonders that can be found on earth as with the spaced-out products of his imagination.

If I had to assign a genre to TABOTD, I’d call it magical realism rather than any kind of science fiction: animals talk, there are signs and premonitions, and eventually the gods of mythology are brought into the mix. (One of the main characters is Monkey—the Monkey from the classic novel Journey to the West—an immortal, talking primate whose goals and prankish sense of humor are often at odds with the seriousness of Bertie’s spiritual undertaking.) There’s some pseudo-scientific rationalization (think Chariots of the Gods), but the result is a narrative world where anything can happen, and as society, racing toward Armageddon, unravels, things get increasingly freaky.

There’s also a strain of hidden history and conspiracy which, combined with the novel’s antic tone, owes something to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. The main antagonist is a corporate mogul described as “a government employee, at the Cabinet level, who had returned to private business after a change of administration.” His name is redacted throughout the book, so he appears as “_______ _______.” Does he represent a real person? I don’t know, but it’s not hard to think of possibilities; such figures are always timely. A grasping, scheming super-capitalist, ______ ______ is one of the few elements of the book that seems even more contemporary now than it did then; he and his fellow businessmen personify what Matt Taibbi memorably described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Early in TABOTD, _______ _______ chooses Bertie, a temp worker, to drive him to “Big Boys Camp,” a top-secret gathering of powerful CEOs and politicians in the manner of a Boy Scout jamboree. Invited to participate, Bertie joins the “campers” for a weekend of canoeing, three-legged races, and weenie roasts under the watchful eye of a camp director. It is at Big Boys Camp that Bertie first encounters Monkey, held captive by _______ _______ and his fellow businessmen and brought out in a cage to terrify them with scary stories.

Bertie let out his breath with a gasp. A monkey was telling the creation story to American capitalists in the fantasy camp of their lost childhoods. Bertie was in dire danger of losing his perspective.

(As sometimes happens, I thought of Big Boys Camp as a surreal invention, of a piece with the talking animals and spacecraft in the rest of the book; it wasn’t until several years later that I heard about the high-powered gatherings at Bohemian Grove and experienced the weird feeling that comes from imagined fiction crashing into reality.)

For a fairly short novel, TABOTD is quite shaggy, with dozens of characters and an episodic form; some elements of it are dated, and not in a good way (Rufus, a black security guard who befriends and protects Bertie, speaks in an exaggerated “sho ‘nuff” dialect that probably wouldn’t get past an editor today). It gets a lot of mileage, however, from the steadily increasing tension of the situation, as Bertie’s travails are intercut with examples of the Strangelove-like madness that leads to war and the mania of a collapsing society. It helps, too, that Billias generates empathy for all the characters, even the villains: _______ _______ isn’t exactly redeemed, but he is a compelling presence, and honest readers will be able to see something of themselves in his self-interested calculations even if they wouldn’t take his actions. (______ ______ is also pretty dynamic: as a character defined by his fear, his will to power, and his aggressive avarice, he balances out the more passive Bertie, who is gradually letting go of all those things.)

According to what little biographical information I’ve found, Billias was in his late 30s when The American Book of the Dead was published; the melancholy tone, the sorrow for the challenges awaiting coming generations, and the sense of how precarious life is speak to me now where they went over my head as a teenager. I don’t doubt that it’s more than a little autobiographical.

If this write-up sounds vague, that’s deliberate: while I usually try to provide some analysis, in this case I’m straight-up promoting, and I don’t want to give too much away. I hope you’ll seek out this book and form your own opinion. After all these years, this is a book that I still believe deserves to be read, to be part of the conversation.

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