The biggest surprise in Owen Egerton’s madcap, mildly heretical novel Everyone Says That at the End of the World, which features a crustacean messiah and 28 clones of Jesus of Nazareth, is that it takes religion quite seriously.
The second biggest surprise is that during the apocalypse, an army of nutria will rise from Lady Bird Lake and kill us all. I didn’t even know we had nutria.
But then, in the terms of Egerton’s eschatology, there’s a lot we don’t know about our world, including the fact that it’s a holding tank for lunatics run by aliens. Cheerfully pessimistic, Egerton sets the timer for goodbye on the very first page and lets it tick down the days on a globe teeming with amiable weirdos. His hero, a neurotic Austin sad-sack named Milton, sees visions of Earth’s impending doom, but, anxious about his girlfriend Rica’s pregnancy and tormented by memories of his father’s fatal obsession with the “many worlds” theory of physics (and not unrelated mental breakdown), Milton doesn’t make the most reliable prophet.
Meanwhile, an arrogant television actor with a distant tie to Rica leaves Los Angeles in search of redemption; elsewhere, a hermit crab scuttles. That these characters will meet eventually in Marfa seems somehow a foregone conclusion, but as Milton’s physicist father would remind us, Marfa is the navel of the apocalypse in only one world. A few worlds over, it’s probably Cleveland.
Egerton has a gift for wrenching real emotion out of scenarios as ludicrous as a hermit crab’s romance with a cereal box prize. The book’s best and funniest moments, however, have to do with the experience of faith. In a book full of saints and hypocrites, Egerton reserves his tenderest mockery for the young, who fall in and out of love with religion as easily as they do with one another, and often at the same time. Young Milton’s quest for meaning leads him to a brief but successful career as a Christian rock star, and the character is never more alive than when he’s earnestly writing lyrics for a concept album based on Revelations, hoping to elevate Christian rock to the standards of the Beach Boys’ Smile. Even when he’s channeling a fatuous youth leader at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat, Egerton sympathizes with his characters’ yearnings for something more. Though a satirist, he is never a cynic.
In a novel of such generosity, it’s a little disappointing to find that Rica, dignified and occasionally heroic, is motivated solely by the contents of her uterus, and more than a little unfair that her slacker boyfriend is given all the answers. Regardless, the real love story is the one between Milton and his best friend Roy, an understated yet incredibly lovable creation. If the end of the world happens the way Egerton thinks it will, I hope to have a Roy by my side, and a book as funny and sweet as this one to read away the end of days.