In its winter issue of 1960, Epoch, a quarterly published at Cornell, carried ‘The River Jordan’, a story by ‘Donald R. DeLillo’. It tells of a day in the life of Emil Burke, a mad Manhattan septuagenarian who leads a storefront chapel called the Psychic Church of the Crucified Christ, with a congregation of four. In the morning he descends to the Times Square subway station and writes ‘REPENT!’ on the wall of the men’s lavatory with a crayon. Around noon, he preaches to a crowd outside the Hotel Metropole and is mocked by a ‘Negro boy’ who compares the Trinity to ‘Purity, Body and Flavor’, the advertising slogan for Ballantine beer. Burke retreats with his followers to a bar, where he overhears a young couple talking about sex and is presented with a book of pornography. Finally, in the midst of all this sin, Mr McAndrew, the man who pays the church’s rent, tells Burke he’s going to take his money to the church of ‘the One True Voodoo of Astral Consciousness’ in Harlem. Mr McAndrew is a ‘fat and sinister’ former real estate agent, and a crank. ‘The River Jordan,’ he tells Burke, ‘is a parking space, a movie with much shooting of guns and much grinding of thighs, and a bag of popcorn, buttered.’ The preacher punches him in the mouth.
LRB 9 February 2012 | PDF Download