What if, say, God were a Manhattan father named Blaine who cures his son of cancer, discusses theology with a Catholic priest and proves his divinity by winning $100,000 playing blackjack at the Bellagio in Vegas? Well, He isn't, but in this deliciously intriguing first novel by Mike Bryan, Blaine does exist sort of.

Bryan, writing as himself (or so it seems), claims The Afterword is indeed the lengthy afterword to The Deity Next Door, a fabricated piece of fiction that spent 102 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Detailing the aforementioned Blaine's process of discovering and dealing with his unique circumstances, the novel-within-a-novel explores the parallels between the new deity and Jesus, as well as the author's explanation of how the story was written. Though a bit dizzying at first, The Afterword quickly establishes itself once Bryan focuses on telling the actual story of Blaine. What follows is a wide-ranging inquiry into such weighty topics as religion, faith and the human condition. Bryan handles these adroitly, peppering his exploration with Biblical quotes and references from a diverse collection of other sources (fictional friends and acquaintances, supposedly true tales from the field of psychology); what emerges is a thoughtful, sensitive investigation into matters spiritual. Yet the novel refuses to let itself be labeled merely an interesting work of theological fiction, for Bryan adds a layer of authorial intrusion that pulls the reader further into this piece of clever post-modern prose.

One way to read The Afterword is as the extended conversation that would result if the author were asked, "So, how does a book come about?" Bryan dodges the more difficult task of actually writing The Deity Next Door, since he essentially provides an outline of that story (albeit one saturated with fascinating theoretical plot twists and strands of character development that didn't pan out) without the burden of adding a skin of dialogue, description, and other accoutrements of the modern novel. But we learn enough of Blaine the Possible Messiah to recognize him as an ordinary, likable man who just happens, maybe, to possess omnipotence. He asks questions about his predicament just like anyone else would, and the trappings of divinity do not sit easily on him. Bryan certainly deserves praise for creating such a character, even if He exists solely within the confines of Mike Bryan's considerable imagination. Michael Paulson is a teacher in Baltimore.

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