Back in his early, funny days, Bill Cosby used to do a pretty good routine about Noah's ark. "You're supposed to see all and know all," Noah tells God. "Well, have you seen the bottom of that ark? Who's going to clean up that mess?"
Cosby was ahead of his time. There's a bit of a boom in biblical fiction these days: Jacob's four wives got the novelistic treatment in Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, and this spring brought us Rebecca Kohn's The Gilded Chamber, starring Esther, and Marek Halter's Sarah, which gamely fills in that figure's early life and makes a passionate love story of her marriage to Abraham. Like Cosby's routine, these books all come with a pleasantly blasphemous tingle. Do they dare improve on the Bible? What do they give us that the Good Book doesn't?
Short answer: the good stuff. In The Preservationist (St. Martin's; 230 pages), first-time novelist David Maine picks on Noah again, and with good reason. The story of Noah, crowded with incident though it is, gets just four brief chapters in Genesis, and Maine has a terrific time romping around in the gaps between the verses, mouthing off in the somber silences between those Old Testament phrases. How does it feel to be 600 years old, as Noe (Maine uses archaic spellings for biblical names) was at the time of the flood? The Bible offhandedly mentions giants--what were those dudes like? Noe's three sons had wives, who presumably had names and personalities and feelings of their own. For Maine, the devilment is in those kinds of details.
As it turns out, much of the fun of The Preservationist lies with Noe's daughters-in-law, who furnish him with a chatty, catty shipboard peanut gallery. His eldest son Sem (usually spelled Shem) is married to unflappable, pragmatic Bera, who gets stuck with a lot of the animal-gathering chores. "The problem with people who think that God will provide," she remarks tartly, "is that they think God will provide." Cham (Ham)--the most skeptical of the sons and the most sympathetic--is paired with mysterious, icy Ilya, a refugee from a northern land who subjects Noe's religious zeal to intellectual scrutiny. "Only a man's god," she snaps, "would show love for his creation by destroying it."
Of course, Noe has the toughest job, as both servant of an enigmatic, irascible deity and sitcom father to that feuding brood. Maine treats him irreverently, but if he knocks the patriarch down a peg, it's only so that we can re-encounter the hoary Old Testament icon afresh as a sensual, fallible human being and really appreciate his greatness and his sacrifice. The Preservationist reminds us that being God's servant 24/7 is both the ultimate privilege and a hell of a lot of hard work, and Noe is the hardest-working man in the Bible.
There is far more to Noe's story than even a talented writer like Maine could tell in a dozen novels, though here's hoping he tries. As we learn in Genesis 9: 28, "And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years." Three hundred and fifty years? Do I smell a sequel? As Noe's wife wearily, wisely puts it, "The test doesn't end when the flood does. It's only the start." --By Lev Grossman