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Wed August 8, 2012
Divine Beings And Socially Awkward New Yorkers
Meet God, according to Simon Rich. He's a mostly nice dude — compassionate, though he gave up on listening to prayers and intervening in the lives of humans years ago. ("[H]e's really more of an ideas guy, you know?" explains an angel.) He loves golf and the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he's not averse to enjoying a beer or two during the workday. He's easy to like, except for two things: He's planning to destroy all of humanity so he can focus on opening an Asian fusion restaurant in heaven; and even worse, he's a Yankees fan.
This depiction of the Almighty as an affable-but-oblivious overgrown frat boy probably isn't what you'd expect, especially if you happen to belong to a religion in which God does not use profanity and refer to "Free Bird" as his "jam." But that's the beauty of What in God's Name, the fourth book from 28-year-old Saturday Night Live writer Rich — it's as unpredictable as it is funny, and it's one of the best American comic novels of the past few years.
God is actually more of a supporting player in the novel, which focuses on Craig and Eliza, two angels assigned to the Department of Miracles. (Other departments in heaven include Gravity Enforcement, Peacock Production and Ice Age Prevention.) After God announces his plan to discontinue the human experiment, Craig makes him a bet: If the angels can get Sam and Laura, two pathologically shy and chronically heartsick New Yorkers, to fall in love, then God will spare mankind. It's harder than it sounds — as God points out, humans are slow on the uptake and "afraid of everything." ("Do you know how long it was before the humans tried fruit? Like, a thousand years. For a while they just walked up to the trees, poked at the apples with sticks, and ran away.")
Dante's Paradiso this ain't, and thank, well, God for that. Not too many authors could pull off a plot this gleefully absurd, but Rich mostly keeps a straight face throughout — like any great comedian, he's committed to the joke, and he doesn't break. His vision of heaven is both original and hilarious: The promised land looks less like the Elysian Fields and more like a sprawling corporate campus, complete with sad little cubicles and a depressing cafeteria (although there is a pretty awesome sushi bar). And his portrayal of the would-be romance between the Earthlings Sam and Laura is unbelievably funny — Rich has fun with Laura's good-natured timidity and Sam's alarmingly total lack of game.
But the most amazing thing about What in God's Name is its unrelenting sweetness. Comedy that mocks and insults people is the easiest thing in the world to do (see: Tosh, Daniel), but it's infinitely harder to be both funny and kind. Rich displays a real love for his characters — even the archangel Vince, who became insufferably arrogant after engineering the "Sully" Sullenberger miracle on the Hudson. The young author has an obvious affection for the underdog, and a soft spot for those who work hard at what they do. It's that sensibility that makes What in God's Name a near-perfect work of humor writing — strikingly original, edgy but compassionate, and most importantly, deeply hilarious.