Roadkill Buddha: Meet a not-so holy roller

Peter Manseau had not been in Charlottesville too terribly long when he packed up his car and headed out in search of religion.

The idea was to follow the seemingly heretical advice of an ancient sage who counseled seekers that if they were to meet Buddha on the road, they should kill him. This being 21st century America, Manseau opted for vehicular manslaughter.

"America has good roads, and we drove on those roads not because they're sacred veins of the land or paths into the mysterious heart of the nation... but because they are paved," explains Manseau (or, perhaps his co-pilot and co-author Jeff Sharlet) in the introduction to their new book, Killing the Buddha.

In fact, Manseau lets the Buddha off fairly easily. The son of a Catholic priest and a former nun, he studied religion in Boston, and then later, according to colleague Sharlet, became "one of the last Yiddish typesetters in America." Manseau, 29, is most in his element when telling tales of that angry Judeo-Christian God who smites and tests and strikes fear.

"One of the reasons we wrote this book is that we're tired of religion books that try to convince you with tradition and pious stories," he said recently after a well-received "tent revival meeting," more recognizable as an innovative book reading.

Subtitled A Heretic's Bible, Killing The Buddha is an anthology of religious eccentricity in America. Dispatches from the road include a visit to a mosque built by Cat Stevens; a conversation with a lapsed Calvinist stripper; a congregation praying loudly for a death sentence to be handed down in their midst; a possessed hermaphrodite and the men who aimed to exorcise her/him/it. These are certainly not pious stories, nor are they strictly heretical. They are funny and fascinating and packed with skepticism.

For this particular revival/signing at a bookstore in Northern Virginia, Manseau had selected a passage about a Pagan Festival in Heartland, Kansas. As he is a handsome young man with stylish glasses and polished urbanity, Manseau's impression of Elowen the crone fell shy of its mark, though he did capably steer his story away from the parody it sometimes threatened to become.

"We're writers. That's what we do. But for the sake of sharing these stories, we have to go outside ourselves a little and be prepared to look a little silly," he said, calling the performance aspect of the book tour "a work in progress."

Manseau will be back in town for the Virginia Festival of the Book, which also marks the end of his 23-city road show. Don't get used to having a heretic in your midst though. Come summer, he's accompanying his girlfriend to New York City, where she plans to begin a career in law.

Ahh ... a whole new God to worship-­ a whole new Buddha to slay.

Peter Manseau