New Leaf, 361 pages, $20.95
On the dust jacket for Leaving Ruin, essayist Annie Dillard writes that Jeff Berryman "has taken an evangelical preacher and turned him into the most unexpected thing: a human being." The damningly faint pastoral praise notwithstanding, it's true. Cyrus Manning is a compelling character not because of his physical appearance (completely bald) or his rhetorical skills (cannot boil a sermon down to three points) or his rigid moral scrupulousness (has a temper, occasionally swears, and admits to lust), but because he earnestly tries to seek God and serve his fellow Christians in spite of it all.
Berryman taught theater at Abilene Christian University in Texas from 1990 to 1996 and has performed several plays with Taproot Theatre Company in Seattle since moving there in 1996.
Before it was a novel, Leaving Ruin existed as a play. Pastors and others praise the play on Berryman's website (www.jberryman.com).
Another Grief Observed
Each chapter in this otherwise first-person narrative begins with a comment about Cyrus from one of the parishioners from the First Church of Ruin, a barren West Texas town of 26,000 "somewhere between Odessa and El Paso." These windows into the congregants' thinking anticipate a church vote to decide whether the Mannings will be forced out. Things are not looking promising amid such rousing endorsements as "I think he's odd, don't you?" and "You think he loves Jesus enough?" and "Maybe the next guy will give us some sermon outlines."
Cyrus knows this, describing his own prospects as a "peculiar disease that's mostly fatal called they-don't-want-me-here-anymore." His wife, Sara, talks early and often about possible jobs that she could find to tide them ...1