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James T. KeaneOctober 26, 2021
Photo courtesy of Phil Klay.

Earlier this month, Phil Klay’s 2020 novel Missionaries was released in paperback. The book was selected by former president Barack Obama last December as one of his “favorite books of 2020” and was named one of the “The 10 Best Books of 2020” by the Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a debut novel, no? And he’s not even 40 years old, so we love him but we sorta hate him for it too.

Missionaries by Phil Klay

Penguin Press

416p, $28 

Klay is a former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps who served in the second Iraq war. He is also what New York Catholics call “a Regis man,” meaning he graduated from Regis University in Denver, Colo. (So many angry letters to the editor being typed right now.) Klay won the National Book Award for Fiction for his 2014 collection of short stories, Redeployment, and was the 2018 winner of the George W. Hunt, S.J. Prize, co-sponsored by The Catholic Chapel & Center at Yale University and America Media. He currently teaches in the MFA writing program at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

“For a number of the characters in Missionaries, their encounters with violence function as a sort of baptism that leaves another kind of indelible mark on their souls.”

In his review of Missionaries for America, Zac Davis notes that the book forces the reader to ask: “What happens to a world, a nation, a society constantly engaged in forever-war?” Klay, he writes, “belongs to a chorus of talented veteran-writers who are helping to unravel decades of near-collective indifference to military action around the world. He is also part of a new generation of authors who are putting to rest the overwrought claims about the death of modern Catholic fiction.”

“To say that all violence and warfare is connected is not just a foreign policy claim—it is a moral one,” Davis writes. “The work of literature is the same as that of religion in this area: to remind us that we are all our brothers’ keepers, and to show what happens when we fail. For a number of the characters in Missionaries, their encounters with violence function as a sort of baptism that leaves another kind of indelible mark on their souls.” And Klay, Davis notes, seems to draw upon two wellsprings in his meditations on violence:

God and violence intermingle in the novel in a way that only a writer worthy of claiming a Catholic imagination could accomplish. A staple of the Catholic literary tradition, from St. Paul’s description of baptism as death to Flannery O’Connor’s gory moments of grace, is that conversion is an act of violence. We are only just beginning to come to grips with the cultural violence that Christian missionaries, sometimes armed only with a Roman Missal and lacking any modern sense of inculturation, waged on Indigenous peoples all over the world. It is hard to know whether Klay’s military service or all the time he spent in front of a bloodied, crucified God contributed more to his understanding of violence.

In the address Klay delivered upon receiving the Hunt Prize in 2018, he elaborated on the connection between the violence of the world around us and the life of faith. “Paul tells us ‘the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.’ And, at times, I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of force. Not of hard mechanical rules, but of stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables,” he wrote:

It is an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control. It is a religion that fits with what I know of reality, that helps me live honestly, and that helps me set aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, comes not from men, but machines. Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.

Klay also sat down in 2015 for an interview with Kevin Spinale, S.J. (Okay, it was by email), to discuss Redeployment, his collection of short stories. One of a number of compelling answers Klay gives in the interview is when Spinale questions him about the connection between being a soldier and being a writer.

Klay spoke of the need every veteran has to find someone or some way to communicate his or her experience of war. “Sin is a lonely thing, a worm wrapped around the soul, shielding it from love, from joy, from communion with fellow men and with God,” he told Spinale. “The sense that I am alone, that none can hear me, none can understand, that no one answers my cries—it is a sickness over which, to borrow from Bernanos, ‘the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly.’”

Phil Klay: “Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.”

That need for communication, however, can be stymied by a variety of factors. “There’s a kind of mysticism about war experience that both soldiers and civilians often buy into. There is a lot of political weight put on how the experience ought to be interpreted and expectations about what that experience is supposed to mean. Sometimes it’s painful to discuss,” Klay writes. “And oftentimes there’s an unwillingness among veterans to expose oneself to judgment, which goes hand in hand with a civilian unwillingness to accept complicity in war.”

We expect veterans to feel the heavy weight of their actions in war. But why do we never expect civilians to accept our own responsibility for our forever-wars?

In his review of Missionaries, Davis also commented that “Klay’s work can be seen as a companion novel to Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti,’ also released last year.” Why? Because Pope Francis expressed concern about the same themes that come up in Missionaries. “[W]ith increased globalization, what might appear as an immediate or practical solution for one part of the world initiates a chain of violent and often latent effects that end up harming the entire planet and opening the way to new and worse wars in the future,” Francis wrote, resulting in a “world war fought piecemeal.”

•••

If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is it Sally Rooney?

Jonathan Franzen writes the American Middlemarch

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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