"I wrote a draft of this story about 30 years ago," he said.
Though he didn’t like that early version, Enger couldn't shake the ideas at its foundation, especially his fascination with the idea of biblical apocalypse
"It was a story that explored this strain of American religion that is more based on American values than gospel virtues, you know," he said. "The strain of American religion that is obsessed with the idea of an impending hard stop to life as we know it."
Enger notes it's a view shared by many. He points to a Pew Research Center report from 2010 which found 41% of Americans believe Jesus Christ will return to earth by 2050.
A couple of years back he returned to the idea and wrote "American Gospel." It's the story of Enoch, the pastor of a church on the edge of the Minnesota prairie. On the first page, Enger describes Enoch as he rises one fateful day in August 1974.
"Tall and straight and bone-thin, white hair unshorn, he is simple in appearance only, this self-appointed prophet. Watch him as he descended the narrow staircase of his turn-of-the-century farmhouse, anticipating his coffee, unaware that he is just minutes away from dying," Enger said.
Enoch collapses. The doctors say he is dead. But then he shocks everyone by not only waking up, but announcing God has sent him a vision.
The rapture is coming. Humanity has just 10 days to prepare for the end of the world.
Enger says Enoch is well-intentioned.
"Very religious. Has some serious problems with grandiosity," he admits.
Enoch's vision comes as the nation is on edge. It's the week of Richard Nixon’s resignation, and unbeknownst to Enoch, the evaporation of his wayward son's big break.
He's Peter, a freelance writer, who's on his way to Washington, D.C., to conduct an exclusive interview with Al Haig, the man some believe will be the next president. When a missed plane connection loses him the gig, covering his father's ascent to heaven seems like the next best thing.
Meanwhile, Peter's old girlfriend Melanie hears the news, too. She's made it big in Hollywood, but feels crushed by the Tinseltown machine. She's also developed an unhealthy relationship with painkillers. The rapture appeals as a solution to her woes. She goes to join Enoch, Peter and an ever-growing crowd on the farm to await the end.
"In a way these characters are very similar to each other" said Enger. "And in a way their needs are very different. But they are all, I feel that they are all people who I have been, or will be."
Enger describes himself as a religious person with what he calls “a major beef with religion.” He said religion should be an invitation but too often it's used as a hammer. Enger says "American Gospel" is a book about religion — but not necessarily religious.
"And I feel this book is about deception, about lies," he said. "And what happens to people who take them. Who believe them. Who live according to those lies."
And in many cases these characters tell lies to themselves. Enoch tells everyone to atone to prepare for the end of the world. But he has secrets of his own, as do Peter and Melanie.
Enger, who teaches writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says he writes to investigate his own obsessions.
His previous novels were “The High Divide” about the westward expansion after the Civil War and a retelling of Hamlet called “Undiscovered Country.” In the 1990s, he collaborated with his brother Leif on the Gun Pedersen detective series under the pen name “L.L. Enger”
"American Gospel" may have begun with the idea of apocalypse, but ended up with the question of dogma. The fact his book, decades in the creation, was published during a contentious election and a global pandemic adds another wrinkle to something he says goes back through U.S. history.
"This willingness on the part of the American public to buy into deceptions that are being sold to them sometimes by people who are sincere, and sometimes by people who aren't,” he said. “And then how can you really tell the difference?"
Which may just be another form of apocalypse.