What kind of Catholic are you? How Mary Gordon’s writing tackles the expansiveness of our faith
Many years ago, I had the chance to teach a university course on “American Catholic Novels.” When working on the initial syllabus, I knew what my first selection would be: Final Payments, the brilliant and emotionally searing 1978 novel from Mary Gordon. The story of Isabel Moore, a young Irish Catholic woman finding her way in life after the death of a domineering and complicated father for whom she had cared for years, fit many of the themes I wanted to cover with my students: the reality of change in a church that so often sees itself as immutable, the perdurance of a sacramental imagination in an American context that so often rejects it, the difficulty of seeking holiness and personal integrity in a setting where the two goals can seem to conflict. To my mind, Isabel Moore was a powerful characterization of the life and times of so many U.S. Catholics then and now.
“For most people, Catholic means only one of three things: a regrettable tendency to lean right, an appetite for sexual repression, an inborn or early-developed talent for blind obedience.”
It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that when America asked Mary Gordon earlier this year to write the “Last Word” in our spring literary review, she chose a subject that will also be the title of her next book: “What Kind of Catholic Are You?” To most people, Gordon wrote, “Catholic means only one of three things: a regrettable tendency to lean right, an appetite for sexual repression, an inborn or early-developed talent for blind obedience.” Gordon, who over the years has published dozens of novels, memoirs and short story collections, has always had a complicated—well, let’s say nuanced—relationship with Catholicism, and so it rankles her when people ask her, “Why are you still Catholic?”
“The answer that usually shuts people up,” she writes, “is that ‘the terms are large.’”
For her project, Gordon came up with pairs of people who credit their Catholicism for their ideas—except that their ideas are diametrically opposed. Bill O’Reilly is linked with Stephen Colbert; Anna Quindlen forms an odd couple with Ross Douthat; Rachel Maddow meets Laura Ingraham; and so on. “I have many more affinities with some of these people than others, just as I have more affinities with some of the fictional characters I have created than with others. But I am not creating characters; these are real people with real lives not under my control,” Gordon writes. “But I hope that some of my novelist’s habits of mind and language can be of use as I try to enter into an understanding of lives in some ways similar to, and in others very different from, my own.”
For her project, Gordon came up with pairs of people who credit their Catholicism for their ideas—except that their ideas are diametrically opposed.
In other words, Gordon has no interest in playing “an extended game of gotcha” to prove who is and who isn’t really Catholic: “I believe that because the people about whom I am writing share with me a vocabulary, a set of images and shared practices (after all, when we hear the ‘Hail Mary,’ we all know the words), there are some firm grounds on which we can all stand.”
Gordon remains a prolific novelist as well, with 2020 marking the publication of Payback, her ninth. In his review of the book for America, Mike Mastromatteo notes that “readers familiar with Gordon’s earlier fiction will almost certainly warm to Payback,” a novel that “offers complex characters who inevitably force readers to consider ideas well beyond the mundane.”
The novel centers on a Rhode Island art teacher, Agnes Vaughan, and her lifetime of remorse for failing a vulnerable student decades before. The student, meanwhile, has spent 40 years orchestrating payback for what she perceives as her teacher’s cruelty. Eventually she becomes the host of a reality television show that allows victims of wrongdoing to confront their tormentors—”a kind of trash television,” Mastromatteo writes, “where the ‘owed’ win a humiliating form of justice.” What results is “a compelling consideration of the cult of victimization and its impact on social concepts of justice, forgiveness and healing.” “Reality TV: there was nothing real about it,” Gordon writes in Payback. “It was an invention, a shape-making, as fictional as any fiction, more so because it denied its fictiveness, made a fiction of truth and a truth of fiction.”
Getting back to Final Payments (I’m still a little obsessed). For some reason America reviewed the book twice, with Mary Sabolik providing a substantial review that praised Gordon’s story. “Aside from the specifics of class and locale, there are, for any young woman brought up in the Catholic Church, many jolts of recognition in this book, as Isabel's natural impulses clash with her religious sensibilities,” Sabolik wrote. “As the novel's central figure, Isabel is a richly complicated woman, at once vulnerable and defiant.” Gordon, Sabolik wrote, captured the petty cruelties as well as the noble impulses of everyday life: “While the author's treatment of character is perceptive and sympathetic, it is also unflinchingly honest.”
Mary Gordon's Payback “offers complex characters who inevitably force readers to consider ideas well beyond the mundane.”
Gordon later published The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father, a memoir of her research into the life of the man who had died in 1957 when she was seven, and with whom the father in Final Payments shared many characteristics. Gordon found that much of what she knew about her father was the result of family myths and his own deceptive narrative about himself. His name, birthplace, background and catalog of published writings, she discovered in her search, were all mostly fiction. It creates a curious frisson for a novelist, does it not, when you realize that someone you tried to render in fiction had done the same with his supposed facts? What did Gordon say above about making “a fiction of truth and a truth of fiction”?
A decade later, Gordon wrote another memoir, this time about her relationship with her mother. “Unflinchingly honest” also describes Gordon’s prose in Circling My Mother, where she writes dispassionately about a complicated and difficult woman who faced physical obstacles and eventually dementia with a preternatural stubbornness. “She has become my words,” Gordon writes near the close of the book, “or dust. Both. How is it possible to comprehend this?”
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.
“She has become my words,” Gordon writes near the close of Circling My Mother, “or dust. Both. How is it possible to comprehend this?”
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James T. Keane