Salvation City: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010. 288 pp)
Living in New York City, Sigrid Nunez has published six novels in her career. She is the winner of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a residency from the Lannan Foundation. She has also received the Rome Prize Fellow in Literature in the American Academy in Rome, a Literature Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Previously, Nunez taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University, as well as being a visiting writer at Washington University, Baruch College, and the University of California, Irvine.
Set in America’s heartland in the near future, Salvation City recounts the story of Cole Vining, a boy orphaned by the recent flu pandemic that killed millions around the world. Adopted by Pastor Wyatt (an evangelical pastor) and Tracy (his wife), Cole must start life anew in an unfamiliar culture. Where previously, Cole’s parents encompassed the liberal ideologies of modern urban residents, his adoptive parents lean to the Christian Right, encouraging him to begin a relationship with Jesus so that Cole might be saved.
Although Cole comes to appreciate the parenting of Pastor Wyatt and Tracy, he struggles with the ramifications of their salvific claims. If eternal life exists only through a relationship with Jesus Christ, Cole reasons that his parents must be condemned to hell. Yet Cole remembers his parents fondly. How could God be so cruel letting his parents die before they move toward to a belief in Jesus?
As the title indicates, this theme of salvation permeates the book. What does it mean to be saved? Is the loving God discussed in Pastor Wyatt’s sermons capable of simultaneously being unloving? Is the salvation formula as simple as saying a prayer or as difficult as living justly in the world?
While the overarching theme intrigued me to read this book, the page-to-page storyline is sorely lacking. For starters, Salvation City contains no chapters. It is, instead, divided into five sections resulting in extremely long blocks of text. Very little time is spent detailing the dystopian post-pandemic world. Aside from mentioning how people contracted the sickness in the first place and characters carrying guns when they go outside, most of the book seems simply ordinary. Lastly, the conclusion of the book is abrupt and hard to follow.
Sigrid Nunez presents some big ideas in Salvation City, but she lacks execution. The book is slightly entertaining yet mostly average; I encourage you to look elsewhere.