Hari Kunzru is a first-generation British novelist of Indian descent—perhaps an unlikely candidate to write a great American novel. But that's just what Gods without Men is: an ambitious and expansive look at superstition, spirituality, and quackery in the American West.
Gods without Men centers on a small town in California's Mojave Desert, where a rock formation called the Pinnacles serves as a beacon both for the spiritually hungry, and for those who would profit off the hunger of others. In the 1950s, a group of "Star People" convene at the Pinnacles to confer with intergalactic beings about the dangers of nuclear power; from these earnest beginnings, Kunzru tracks the cult's downward slide into a predictably sleazy '70s hotbed of sex, drugs, and STDs. Throw in a few historical accounts of Native American rituals at the site, and the Pinnacles become a charged nexus for the novel's main storyline, a look at how faith and skepticism play out in the tragedy of one contemporary family.
While a couple from New York City—a first-generation Indian immigrant and his Jewish princess of a wife—takes a day hike to the Pinnacles, their autistic son mysteriously disappears from his stroller. The story of the missing child attracts national attention, and the couple find themselves thrust into the spotlight—first portrayed as heroically bereaved, and later as possible suspects. Little does the couple know, though, that the site at which their son went missing has a complex and layered history, from the aforementioned cult to the Native American culture whose legends predate any talk of aliens or free love.
The book is cleverly structured—the Pinnacles serve as a sort of portal between the novel's disparate storylines, a point where history and myth blur and bleed together. Over the years and through various characters, religion, mysticism, and sheer manipulative quackery are juggled in such a way that the underpinnings of one are no less certain than any other. Even the stock market takes on a quasi-mystical element, when a hint of Kabbalism is thrown in. Kunzru doesn't provide too many answers to this book's questions; he simply allows personal and historical circumstances to resonate. Whether the meanings that emerge can be chalked up to underlying cosmic forces or coincidence is, at heart, the question of belief itself—which is to say, every reader must come to her own conclusion.