The red-haired cop looks at Ricky Rudolph and, with an angry edge to his voice, asks, “You think Jesus Christ is a joke?” Well, no, Ricky doesn’t, but the cop might be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion.
Ricky dresses in religious robes and has long flowing hair and a beard. He’s licensed by the Universal Holy Church to do weddings which he spices up with a little magic, including a couple of doves that fly out of nowhere at the right moment.
His job: Jesus impersonator.
“Um, can I just say,” a waitress tells him after one ceremony, “it’s like, so weird, you look just like Him, the hair, the beard, everything.” Ricky’s just trying to find the men’s room.
Most of the time, the marriages that Ricky blesses are for a couple on a second or third try at connubial bliss, people who aren’t especially religious but looking for a party. “This was his flock,” writes Chicagoan Cecilia Pinto in her novella Imagine the Dog, “and he was happy among them.”
Not in a holy-rollerish way
So, yeah, it’s easy to see why the cop and probably a lot of other people think this whole Jesus thing is a big joke, maybe even a scam. A guy around 40, dressing up to look like Jesus, it must be all tongue-in-cheek, at least.
And, let’s face it, modern literature and entertainment are filled with smart-alecky anti-heroes who don’t take anything, including themselves, seriously. They are flippant and irreverent about everything. Until, maybe, they find themselves in a situation where they can’t avoid saving a child from a burning building, and then they wisecrack about it.
Ricky isn’t an anti-hero although, truth be told, he’s not much of a hero, at least in terms of having his life in control. He’s maxed out on his credit cards, lives hand-to-mouth and hasn’t seen his two daughters since his divorce a decade ago.
But he likes his job. And he likes Jesus, too, just not in holy-rollerish way. And, as someone who recognizes his lust for the liquor store owner Beatta, he isn’t priggish either.
“Ricky was in love with her in a way that seemed reasonable and pure except for his dirty dreams.”
“A little flash of hope”
What happened was that, at his lowest, Ricky walked into a forest deep in the night, looking for a rumored car, got lost, sat down and fell asleep against a tree, woke up and “across from where he sat was an embankment, and in the darkness it sparkled like fireflies, here and there, hundreds of glinting, flashing pieces. It was strange and beautiful.”
Later, he would learn it was the glittery mineral called mica, but, that night, for him, it “reflected the Glory” and seemed to be communicating a message to him.
“This idea changed him. He gave himself to the Lord. He declared himself saved, and without knowing quite how, he decided he was going to be like Jesus, to maybe give to others something of what he had experienced; a little bit of grace, a little flash of hope.”
Imagine the Dog, the 2020 winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, is a delightfully transgressive book in its refusal to embrace irony. It takes faith seriously, but it’s not aimed at the religious market inasmuch as (1) Ricky has no ties to institutional religion and (2) his faith in God hasn’t enabled him to get his head on straight.
Pinto, a creative writing teacher at the Chicago High School for the Arts, has provided the reader with a fine-tuned tale of humanity and humor, and one without snickering. Her story’s funny and fun because we all are Ricky to some extent and we all know Rickys in our lives, even if most of them don’t see themselves as called to become Jesus impersonators.
“Decided to love”
And it’s also a touching story, such as when Ricky is being hounded by a looming, 6’2” 17-year-old high school senior named France who wants him to officiate at the funeral of his mother who has just died.
Ricky doesn’t do funerals, but France, whose father is long gone and is now alone in the world, won’t take “no” for an answer. In fact, he basically moves into Ricky’s apartment, to Ricky’s great exasperation. But then, as Pinto describes it, here’s what happens:
“France sat, looking a little sweaty and out of breath. Ricky decided to love him. It didn’t really make any sense, but in a way it mattered a lot. France was in front of him, God had put France in front of him. It seemed clear enough. ‘You get the couch, for now, until I figure out this mess.’ ”
It’s a sweet scene in a sweet novel.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 4.25.21.