Reverend Billy connects local dots to global concerns
Photo courtesy of OR Books
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | You’re halfway home to making a sale if your book jacket delivers a compelling promise of things to come — and boy, does Revered Billy nail it. But is it too late for salvation, even if you buy the message?
With his shiny white polyester suit, windswept pompadour hair, stiff cleric’s collar, bugged-out eyes and mouth agape, the guy on the cover seems to be caught off guard by the sight of gathering storm clouds. It’s a knowing, almost burlesque version of the hand-in-the-cookie-jar look a toddler gives you when he’s about to pay the price for some very naughty and destructive behavior.
BOOKS: THE END OF THE WORLD
By Reverend Billy
Published by OR Books
Visit orbooks.com and revbilly.com
Hey, even two-year-olds know it’s wrong to do something they’ve been warned about time and time again — so when the oceans swell, the cities flood and the last rebooted Twinkie disappears from the store shelves, don’t say you didn’t read about it here first.
With “The End of the World,” Reverend Billy has crafted his own lean Book of Revelation. At just over 100 pages, it’s full of ominous warnings that make the consequences of Superstorm Sandy look like an anemic prelude to what’s just around the corner. It’s an incredibly fun and breezy read, which is quite an achievement considering the subject matter — a gloomy forecast, to be sure…but at least it won’t affect your purchasing power.
In Monday morning quarterbacking mode, the good man of the cloth recalls, “It was a distraction, as the End of the World approached, that there were still such great sales…The accelerating Apocalypse got us hot. The really bad disasters were on Pay-Per-View. What didn’t kill us made us watch.”
And with that, the nature-loving Wisconsin lad, born Bill Talen, makes the not-so-great leap from bullhorn street crusader to bully pulpit author. For the uninitiated, Reverend Billy is a purpose-driven marriage between a revival tent evangelist, a performance artist and a civil yet disobedient activist. With his robed gospel choir in tow, the Church of Stop Shopping first cut their teeth by flash mobbing the 42nd Street Times Square Disney Store, in an attempt to convince the masses to repent their spendthrift ways. Mind you, this was back when there was a Disney store on 42nd, and before “flash mob” entered the lexicon. Now we’re as tired of that fad as we are of the original Tickle Me Elmo. Not to worry. The fickle public will always find a hot new gotta-have thing to do, buy or covet — and Reverend Billy will be there, charting the demise of mom and pop shops, the rise of corporate chain stores and the mallification of Manhattan.
With his latest book, though, local causes have given way to a big picture crusade. The author of “What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store?” and “What Would Jesus Buy?” has gone global, connecting the dots between the conspicuous consumption he’s long railed against to rising tides, species extinction and “sensual disengagement from others.” All the apocalyptic scenarios described in the book, he asserts, “come from separation” between man and nature, producers and consumers. “The more terrible the End of the World, the clearer the call to look into each other’s eyes and start something. Earth in me recognizes Earth in you. The Earth wants to reunite.”
That little sliver of hope comes early on in the book — followed by the bleak prognosis of a June 2012 study by an international group of 22 natural scientists. Their premise, that Earth is a single ecosystem in rapid decay, is “as grave a warning as I have ever read,” Reverend Billy bemoans. “Yet these natural scientists are so isolated from mainstream culture that no one much noticed it.” It’s especially worth noting, he says, that the study (“Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere”) doesn’t even have the usual cushioning “sentence that calms me down” about how we’ve got a little under a century until complete destruction. “That 80- or 90-year gift,” he reasons, “would give Lena a life.”
Lena, his 2-year-old daughter, figures into the first of the book’s three sections. In it, Billy and the kid stand in the doorway of their Prospect Park home, at dusk, surveying the post-Sandy damage as everybody goes about their humbled-by-nature business, after “our city was swallowed by something so dark and huge, with the name of a 50’s teenager.” At least there’s one upside. “We can’t see a single logo from our front door,” Reverend Billy giddily recalls, not clarifying if it’s only because the 24-hour glow of CitiBank and 7-Eleven storefronts were denied juice by that downright inconvenient blackout.
Elsewhere in the tome, a definite pattern emerges, in chapters like “Apocalypse of the Forests,” “Apocalypse of the Mountaintops” and “Apocalypse by Tornado.” Welcome to the new normal, folks!
For some local color, there’s also a flashback chapter to an Occupy Wall Street action that landed Reverend Billy, Cornel West, Chris Hedges and a dozen others in the clink — following a people’s trial in Zuccotti Park, during which Goldman Sachs was fined $87 billion. The jailbirds were cuffed while presenting the bill to Sach’s “glossy, giant building at 200 West Street, just by Ground Zero and its clouds of tourists.” Later, in the chapter “Ritual Gratitude and the Robots of Death,” Church of Stop Shopping and Picture the Homeless members transform an ATM lobby into a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner celebration. Along with the guest of honor, a recently evicted casualty of the “Bank of America foreclosure mills,” the group feasts, sings and feels “the honest slowed-down emotions” that “come up in us during our ritual meal.” With such a “devil as Bank of America,” the author beams, “we are able to protest environmental and social justice at one and the same time. The bank that illegally evicts the most people is also among the top investors in Dirty Coal. So the destruction of the family home is equated with the destruction of the large home of Earth.”
These two forays into the Church’s street theater work are told with Reverend Billy’s usual wry humor. But if you’ve seen him live, missing is that utterly unique delivery and genuine sense of showmanship. Backed by a swooning, swaying hallelujah choir, Reverend Billy’s twangy vocals and sweaty, desperate, end-of-telethon TV preacher pleas are delivered with a mix of satire and sincerity that keeps you guessing. Am I supposed to laugh at this guy or cry at what he’s telling me? A little bit of both, I suspect. No matter. The Billy of the printed page still has plenty of moral and comedic heft.
Whatever’s lost in translation from the stage to the page is more than made up for in one of the final chapters. “Earth Riots” is a crisp little three-page work of sci-fi in which the police are curiously placid as an Earther movement sees refineries on the outskirts of Newark go off-line following “three-pronged attack by bird, fish and forest people,” as thousands of tree people cross the Hudson, “establishing beach-heads along the Westside Highway, planting trees, then disappearing into the Greenwich Village area, apparently taken in by sympathetic local residents.” Traffic jams clog the Bronx Queens Expressway, with families pouring out of their vehicles to take “bird-like positions on the roof or the hood, soaring with their arms in wing-like gestures.”
By this point, Reverend Billy has slipped the surly bonds of denial and complacency, providing (at least within the realm of fiction) a happy ending where man once again embraces nature without the usual consequences visited upon the Church of Stop Shopping when they cross the line to tell a truth. “No arrests have been reported,” the chapter concludes, “as the BQE continues its conversion to a strange inter-species bio-highway.” Given the alternative, it’s enough to make you stop shopping and start paying attention.