Above are the galleys of my forthcoming book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, to be published by W.W. Norton this August. Also, some of the 6 1/2 feet of snow that fell this past winter in my new home of New Hampshire, and a barn from which a bear stole a garbage bag last week. A raccoon may live in there, too.
Norton has just finalized the dust jacket copy for Sweet Heaven. That is, the flap, the pitch, the shpiel, the what's-it-about come-on that will for most bookstore browsers determine whether they write down the title to remind themselves to buy it online -- sad but true -- or drop it with a thud. Or maybe like a pat -- it's a modestly-sized book, 264 pages, 5.5 inches X 8.25, a little shorter than a piece of paper is wide. Small, but big in ambition, or so declares Norton:
No one explores the borderlands of belief and doubt quite like Jeff Sharlet -- ingenious, farsighted, able to enter the worlds of others, even the flakiest and the most fanatical, with uncommon sympathy. Taking his title and inspiration from the despair and desire of legendary banjo player Dock Boggs, Sharlet sets out across a landscape of strange religion, from the American mythology -- and geology -- of “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” to the midnight congregation of urban anarchists celebrating a victory over police in “What They Wanted.”
Sharlet discovers a country of prophets, promoters, revolutionaries, and other restless souls to guide him along the way. There are old friends—a whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking, Bible-reading radical born again as a Republican D.A., campaigning on horseback with a gun in her holster—and would-be saviors, a fundamentalist Christian “frontline soldier” who takes Sharlet into a grave at a Hell House in Texas, a “ritual master in the High Council of Gor” who attempts to rid him of evil spirits with a big knife and an “emotional cord cutting” above a yoga studio in Brooklyn. Sharlet finds heroes—a rebel journalist who videotaped his own murder, a Yiddish writer who left behind the greatest Holocaust novel nobody’s ever read, a philosopher who shows Sharlet the “deep democracy” within the “death shudders” of jazz and the blues—and antiheroes, not villains but everyday people confronting the truth of suffering and trying to cut the best deals they can on the side.
In the tradition of Joan Didion’s classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem, these portraits and journeys become movements in the same complex piece of music, one that vibrates with all the madness and beauty, the melancholy and aspirations for transcendence, of American life.
Are you melancholy? Do you vibrate? Do your underarms smell of aspiration? Then you should probably buy the book right now.