Simon Rich is the youngest writer ever hired on America’s top comedy show, Saturday Night Live, and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Born in New York (he’s the son of the New York Times journalist, Frank Rich) and educated at Harvard, he has a gently clever comic style. Though still in his 20s, he has a novel and two books of humorous stories to his name. His second novel, What in God’s Name is ideal material for a feel-good rom-com movie.
The story is simple. God is the CEO of Heaven Inc, and spends his days watching cable TV, looking for church channels where Bible-Belt preachers praise his name, and for car races on the sports channels (he loves fixing sports games). His other great passion is Lynyrd Skynyrd, the 1970s southern rock band. Three members of the band died in a plane crash in 1977 but God is keen to reunite the band.
He is a larger-than-life character who dreams of starting up an Asian-fusion restaurant — think Jeff Bridges as the Dude in The Big Lebowski. And it’s not a million miles from the tender satire of the animated movie featuring Woody Allen, Antz, except with Angels (Rich is currently writing a film for Pixar).
Craig and Eliza are two young Angels working in the Miracles Department. Eliza has just been promoted from the Prayers Department and Craig is happy to show her the ropes in her new job. They are both conscientious and hard-working, trying their best to help humans with minor miracles and divine interventions. They would make a perfect couple if either plucked up the courage to make the first move.
They bring together two neurotic young New Yorkers, who are compatible but also frightened to commit to each other and cling instead to a lonely world of Indian takeaways and watching TV reality shows. The novel moves between the two nervous young couples, making fun of contemporary office life on the way.
It’s not a particularly original idea but the structure is clever and the book is short enough at under 180 pages not to outstay its welcome.
The characters are all sympathetic, with God getting the best laughs, and the dialogue crackles along. It is the nearest I have read in a while to the spirit of the best screenplays of the late, great Nora Ephron, and there are few better compliments than that.