Review: Alice McDermott belongs among the great Catholic novelists.
Flannery O’Connor wrote the following in her Mystery and Manners: “The novelist makes his statement by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason. He demonstrates something that cannot possibly be demonstrated any other way than with a whole novel.”
She could have used those words to describe Alice McDermott.
The good news for anyone whose literary tastes have been strongly influenced by the Catholic novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Morris West, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Edwin O’Connor, A. J. Cronin and Piers Paul Read is this: The new Alice McDermott novel, Absolution, has arrived!
McDermott’s novel can be both compared and contrasted with Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
One of my early encounters with Alice McDermott’s writing was an essay in which she claimed that she believed that every sentence she wrote was influenced by her Catholic faith. I was stunned. Her statement struck me as religious hyperbole. Who did she think she was? Matthew? Mark? Luke? John? Having read all nine of her novels, and several more than once, I now believe what she said.
Years ago, in her excellent book The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, the professor and author Jean Kellogg claimed that the Second Vatican Council was the death knell for the Catholic novel, as the Catholic self-understanding joined the modern world. “For many Catholics confluence by the 1960’s became so complete that they were no longer sure what the true Catholic essence was,” Kellogg wrote. “The primary and defiant Catholic emphasis upon the spirit, which for so many generations had caused the creative spark between the Catholic communities and the secular environment, virtually ceased.”
However, I suspect the Catholic novel will never disappear as long as McDermott continues to write. McDermott’s amazing skill at perceiving details and then describing them with precision causes me to raise a similar question that I raise about great athletes: Do they have some gift that the rest of us lack, or is their skill due to long hours of practice? My guess is that an athlete’s skill is due to a combination of gift and effort—and I suspect the same may be true of McDermott’s extraordinary talent to describe places and persons so well that we readers feel as though we have become part of the story.
Much of Absolution takes place in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In his Cycles of American History, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has this devastating comment about the involvement of the United States in the war:
American intervention in Vietnam lost its last claim to legitimacy when the means employed and the destruction wrought grew out of any rational relationship to the interests threatened and the objective sought…. No administration asked in any searching way what danger to national security, what involvement of national interest would justify the commitment of American troops to what became the longest war in American history.
Using this view of the Vietnam War as background, McDermott has dramatized through the lives of a handful of Americans the ignorance and naïveté that distorted their awareness and lack of awareness during their years in Saigon. Through our country’s immoral involvement in Vietnam, she suggests a universal need for absolution. Though she has moved from the locale of Long Island so familiar in her earlier novels, she continues to explore beautifully the same places in the heart.
The following paragraph illustrates McDermott’s awesome ability, with a few images, to invite readers into a new world:
It would have been easy enough to believe that the Americans living in Saigon in those days had come over simply to go shopping. And not just the wives. Every American you saw on the street, man and woman, carried a shopping bag, or had two or three of them surrounding their feet at any café. Shopping was the one thing we talked about at our parties and lectures and luncheons. Shopping for souvenirs, for clothing, for jewels, for radios, for cameras, quarts of Johnny Walker. And cigarettes, of course. All so cheap and abundant.
Central to the plot of Absolution are three women—Tricia, Charlene and Charlene’s daughter Rainey, whom we first meet when she is about 8 years of age but whose importance to the story becomes evident many years later when she is a married mother. During much of her time in Saigon, Tricia’s self-image is formed by the words her father spoke to her on her wedding day: “Be a helpmate to your husband. Be the jewel in his crown.”
Devout Catholics whose faith seems very simple, Tricia and her engineer husband are in Saigon because the U.S. government sent him there along with many other engineers. Charlene, an imposing tower of self-confidence, is a compulsive do-gooder who wants to make the world a better place. Years later, when Rainey is an adult, wife and mother, she describes her mother’s many efforts to remove some of the awfulness in the world as “a disappearing generation’s efforts at inconsequential good.”
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether all Charlene’s efforts were “inconsequential.” Reading about and reflecting on her efforts, I think of Chesterton’s insight: “If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing badly.” Rainey’s relations with her mother are very conflicted. If not love/hate, then certainly not as loving as one might wish, indeed not as loving as Rainey might wish.
In a profound way, Alice McDermott’s creative intuition and religious faith appear to have interacted in Absolution.
The most attractive character in the novel is Dominic, a conscientious objector who is described by another character as “more Catholic than the pope.” He appears later in the novel, when he and his wife and their adopted son Jamie, a 20-year-old with Down syndrome, have moved next door to Rainey and her husband Doug. The latter, a cynical secularist, is shown to be probably influential in Rainey’s abandoning the Christian faith of her mother.
McDermott’s novel can be both compared and contrasted with Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, whose narrator does not believe in God. The last line of Greene’s novel is “…but how I wished there was someone to whom I could say I was sorry.” (McDermott uses that last line as an epigraph to her novel.) However, unlike Greene’s novel, absolution is a possibility in McDermott’s story. At least two characters achieve it through heroic acts of love.
The contribution of two observers of modern aesthetics are helpful in assessing the impact of McDermott’s writing. The poet and scholar Mark Van Doren, who was a legend as a professor at Columbia University, once expressed what critics should look for when they evaluate a poem. I think Van Doren’s suggestions can be applied to a novel:
What is a given [novel] about? What happens in it? What exists in it? If too little of the world is in it, why is that? If all of the world is there, by what miracle has this been done? Are the facts of life accounted for in the unique way that [a novel] accounts for them, and is the [novel] therefore something that everyone should read? Does the author know more, not less, than most men know?
I also think the philosopher Jacques Maritain’s theory of art is valuable in this context. Maritain claimed that every work of art should have two components, a creative intuition and the matter in which the artist tries to express that creative intuition. The difference between the intuitions we all have and the artist’s creative intuition is that the artist is moved by his or her intuition to be creative, to embody his or her intuition in a work of art.
This creative intuition cannot be verbalized: It is not an idea or a concept. Ideally, it should be present in three places: in the artist, in the work of art and in the person experiencing the work. When a profound creative intuition has been successfully incarnated in matter, a masterpiece has been created.
Using Maritain’s theory, I asked myself all the questions that I have attributed to Van Doren with McDermott’s novel in mind. Absolution is exceptionally good because of McDermott’s insights into the mystery of the human person due to her religious faith and her extraordinary ability to weave those insights into a story that has universal implications. Here is Flannery O’Connor again: “If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.”
I doubt McDermott’s religious faith is identical with her creative intuition, because religious faith can be verbalized to some extent. In a profound way, however, McDermott’s creative intuition and religious faith appear to have interacted in Absolution. I cannot explain that interaction; I suspect that McDermott cannot explain it. Indeed, perhaps Maritain himself would not be able to explain it. However, the interaction makes Absolution a marvelous novel, perhaps a masterpiece.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Awfulness, Absolution and Altruism,” in the , issue.