Faith often is a lofty topic, examined by lofty characters in lofty situations. But life isn't always full of Joyce's famous epiphanies. Faith often is about the mundane, something smaller, quieter, quirker rather than tragic or majestic. Which is why it's so refreshing to read Nathan Leslie's latest collection, Believers. Leslie always has had a Carver-esque knack for capturing the average Joe and Jane, and in Believers he finds the subtle ways in which are belief systems are emeshed in the fabric of our daily lives.
That isn't to say that Leslie doesn't start off ambitiously. In "The Cathari," which is easily the best story in the collection, a young man and his sister, after their mother's death, join the Cathari, a cult-like sect who not only shun society and sex, but even the "food of sexual regeneration" because they believe the body, any body, to be vile.
"It was as if he was opening a world which we too could enter, and eventually master, a world which had its own set of rules and nuance," the young man explains of R, the "Perfect" who takes the siblings under his initiatory wing. And the young narrator does enter this world of strange rituals that could not be believed otherwise. It's a shocking testament to the extraordinary acts people commit, all because of a belief in an ordered system, not matter how outrageous its foundations are.
Similarly, "The Handler," is about a mall security guard who happens upon a group of men and women in the parking lot behind the mall. They worship a snake handler named Rusty. Only the shunned are bitten, Rusty explains to an incredulous, then fascinated, security guard. Rational people know that snakes aren't particularly aware of who's sinful and who's not—or are they?
Religion functioning as family is the theme in "Hurdle for Dunces," which showcases the unlikely friendship between two gym employees—Jermaine and Montana. Jermaine is a college dropout, amateur philosopher, and professional hothead. Montana is a no-frills trainer and equally stubborn. Yet they both respect each other's belief and mesh in such a dynamic way that soon the other gym employees unwittingly become sort of their congregation. The universe at the gym is precariously balanced perfection until Jermaine and Montana's differences prove too much, tearing their friendshp—and their tight-knit group of followers—apart.
Leslie also examines how even the perception of truth can change one's life. In "The Feast of St. Olav," Stanton Colliver feels a compulsion to visit the land he and his mother fled, the Freore Islands in Denmark, only to discover that he was never baptized, his ancestry and his primal recollection of identity a gap in the church records.
There is some throwaway, filler stories in Believers, as seems to be the standard for most short story collections, and sometimes the voices of Leslie's narrators—men, women, young and old, have no discerning characteristics, so much that they tend to blend together from story to story. Otherwise, he was cobbled together a quiet, humble, and touching collection of stories—the type that, even if you don't believe, you want to.