LIVING WITH A WILD GOD: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve Books, 237 pp., $26.
"I was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons." That sounds like the Barbara Ehrenreich we know -- the political activist and author of "Nickel and Dimed," the feisty champion of the working poor, the professional cynic who punctured the balloon of positive thinking in "Bright-Sided."
So who, exactly, is this Barbara Ehrenreich with a new book out titled "Living With a Wild God"? When did a supreme deity enter the picture?
First off, don't worry -- the author's tart, cynical, intelligent voice is intact. (A typical observation: "Sex was something that occasionally happened to women in novels, generally leading to poverty or death.") But where Ehrenreich has always been concerned with society and its ills, the new book is a memoir -- and an unusual one, at that.
Drawing from a journal that she kept as a teenager in the 1950s and rediscovered while assembling her papers for a university library in 2001, "Living With a Wild God" tracks the serious young Ehrenreich's attempts to understand what she calls "the situation": "What is the point of our brief existence? What are we doing here and to what end?"
This epistemological quest takes on a greater urgency after she begins experiencing, briefly and sporadically, a kind of dissociative state during which "something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words." Later, on a road trip with friends, she has an even more ineffable experience on a predawn walk through the small town of Lone Pine, California: the "world flamed into life," a "blazing everywhere," a "furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once."
For years Ehrenreich shared this experience with no one ("If there are no words for it, then don't say anything about it"), but with the rediscovery of her journal, she begins an inquiry -- philosophical, scientific, medical and, yes, spiritual -- into this mysterious epiphany.
Suffice it to say that Ehrenreich has not joined the ranks of Sunday churchgoers, or otherwise fit herself neatly into organized religion. But this dyed-in-the-wool skeptic has allowed her thinking to evolve in ways that will surprise her readers, as much as it surprised her. Though "Living With a Wild God" occasionally descends into woolgathering, it is for the most part a revealing window onto a lively mind at work, always questioning, always seeking a better answer.