In Search of the Catholic Novel
I sometimes think that the most meaningful difference between Catholic novelists today and half a century ago (when Greene, Percy and O’Connor ruled the literary roost) is, well, very little. Those writers were not interested in being labeled with their religious tradition (except for Flannery O’Connor, who even called herself a “thoroughly Christianized novelist” in a late essay); neither are Alice McDermott and Christopher Beha today.
At other times I think there are simply Catholic novelists who accept invitations to speak at conferences about being one, and there are those who don’t. No one is ever going to find Cormac McCarthy behind a podium at a Catholic university. Nor, I suppose, Dean Koontz, who is surely the best-selling writer of fiction in the world today who happens to be Catholic. Both men occasionally write about fallen souls and the struggle for redemption. See, for example, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road, and Koontz’s Brother Odd, in which a monk makes decisions based on unseen influences.
To ask a novelist if he is Catholic is often to provoke him and force a denial. What artist would want to be tagged with an agenda? Witness William Giraldi. He’s one of the few novelists today taught in Catholic universities as “Catholic,” but he disavowed the label last year in The New Republic. In “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist” Giraldi revealed that he hasn’t been a believer since he was 18. He wrote: “Here’s what I know with an almost religious surety: to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist.” Seven years earlier, Giraldi wrote for Believer magazine “A Devil-obsessed Conglomeration of Christian Misfits.” He spoke of his parents:
My mother was five months pregnant with me when…The Exorcist opened, in 1973. By most accounts the scariest film ever made, [it] terrorized my mother so thoroughly that she thought she would go into labor and spontaneously expel me onto the theater floor. Two lukewarm Catholics of modest education, recently married and poised to begin a family, my parents were the perfect targets of a film about demonic possession.
The film is no longer scary, he goes on to say. “We’re a soberer people now.” However:
I was, after all, a child of Roman Catholicism, weaned on drama, ritual, hocus-pocus…. My hard-won reason almost always has a difficult time fending off an easeful inclination toward the sensational and improbable…. That’s me: wanting to believe.
Giraldi quotes St. Augustine’s City of God, compares early Protestantism to Renaissance Catholicism on evil, refers to the Salem witch trials and Jonathan Edwards, defines biblical terms like Sheol and quotes from the Book of Daniel. A Catholic imagination is at work despite the denials, and with or without the cooperation of belief.
We still have Catholic novelists and Catholic novels, but, curiously, mainstream publishers are hesitant to use the label. That’s odd, given the size of the potential readership, but I assume they know what they’re doing. Then again, perhaps not. Fifty years ago, publishers would market to Catholics a novelist who writes about Catholics. At least one blurb on the jacket, for instance, would quote praise from Commonweal or America. Novels by Mary Gordon and Ron Hansen have not done this for decades. Their sales have likely suffered as a result.
We will never agree on what it means precisely to be Catholic or to write a Catholic novel. And another essay might be written on what it means to read, not so much write, as a Catholic. But in the spirit of the Rev. Andrew Greeley, let me suggest that Donal Ryan is overflowing with Catholic imagination. Ryan is one of the most powerful young novelists today. He has written two since The Thing About December, under review here. The next and latest, All We Shall Know, will be published in Ireland and England this September.
The Thing About December might restore faith in Catholic fiction, even though its author is known more as Irish than as Catholic. Born in 1976 in Tipperary, Ryan now lives near Limerick City. There is nothing confessional about his life or this work. He writes of Catholics and non-Catholics, and their faith is never what most defines them. This makes sense to most of the people in the pews I know today; Ash Wednesday is the only day they seem to wear their faith confessionally, and even then, most uneasily. Still, the persistent themes of Ryan’s work are the desire for love and forgiveness after tragedy and loneliness. His novels are filled with sin, penitence and a yearning for grace.
The Thing About December tells a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, a chubby and self-doubting 24-year-old, “a lonesome gom,” who recalls often how adored he was by his heroic father, dead two years from cancer. Daddy’s fondness for Johnsey is getting the lad nowhere, especially as it lives only in memories. “Words could make an awful fool of you…. What was ever achieved with words?” explains the unreliable narrator, who seems to be about Johnsey’s age and knows him well.
Johnsey dreads bullies left over from his school days and remembers the dances where he never actually met girls about whom he still fantasizes, even at Mass. Johnsey lives among the dead, chiefly the memories of his father; but then, theologically too, since his priest, Father Cotter, explained, “The dead are all around us.” The night that Johnsey finds his mother dead on the floor at home, wearing “her green dress that she often wore to Mass,” Father Cotter praises him for his calm.
The natural world mocks Johnsey’s grief: “The world doesn’t change, nor any thing in it, when someone dies. The mountains keep their still strength, the sun its heat, the rain its wetness.” Soon, he is plotting suicide by rope and crossbeam in the barn. In the power of its simple language and the way death never leaves the living, December reminded me of the Irish-American William Kennedy and his classic novel, Ironweed.
There’s a rawness to Ryan’s descriptive powers that sometimes resembles a chain-link by the repeated use of three-to-five letter words. Witness this description of a minor character:
Bonesy had always frightened children, not on purpose, but just by being humped and crooked and having arms that were longer than was natural and hands that had thick hair on the backs of them and a kind of a mad smile that made his kindness seem more like a desire to eat you without salt.
He also uses rich, often local vocabulary, and Irish-English words like piseogs and craic occur frequently. The uselessness of words is also a persistent theme, as when Johnsey’s widowed mother is described as “a woman who had hardly any words left for the world, only lonesome thoughts and muttered prayers.” The word “muttering” recurs often, in fact. Some people have trouble speaking, while others simply don’t want to.
Johnsey’s Daddy grew up with uncles who fought the British in the streets in the War of Independence. English soldiers are remembered for their acts of desecration in Catholic homes, as when “they’d try to flush the Blessed Virgin down the toilet and they’d take the holy picture out to the yard and fling it on the ground and piss all over Our Lord.” At times, Johnsey ponders the confessional, purgatory, limbo, eternal judgment, Jesus being tempted in the desert and the sight of God. He goes to Mass every Sunday. At one point, after being beaten unconscious and waking up half-blind in a hospital bed, Johnsey fantasizes about switching sides and aligning with the devil.
Then it becomes known in town that Johnsey has inherited land that has great worth. December is set in the years of the Celtic Tiger. Will Johnsey sell? He can’t. Everyone he’s ever cared about is still knocking about the place. But being a landowner marks him as one of the privileged. “Even Our Lord Himself had only the carpentry business and no land.”
Fenton Johnson is another writer with a Catholic imagination that he can’t kick. He has been writing fiction for three decades, and yet The Man Who Loved Birds is only his third novel. There have been memoirs in between, including Keeping Faith, about the anger that led him to abandon his Catholicism. Johnson grew up in the Diocese of Louisville, Ky., which is not only home to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, made famous by Thomas Merton, but as Bardstown was one of the original five Catholic dioceses in the United States (with Baltimore, Boston, New York and Philadelphia). It is old Catholic country nestled in the Kentucky woods, surrounded by Protestant America. Fenton grew up familiar with every sort of sacramental, ritual and piety and knew several of the monks of Gethsemani. That same monastery, although unnamed, is the setting for this new novel, and The Man Who Loved Birds may just be the book that reconciles Fenton Johnson with his Catholic heart.
Two of my favorite fictional characters this year are in this novel. One, Bengali-born Meena Chatterjee, is a medical doctor who finds herself with a small practice in a modified gas station in rural Kentucky. She is wise and cunning, generous and sometimes painfully honest. Then there’s Brother Flavian, a monk at the aforementioned monastery, who lives just across the woods from Meena and from the Vietnam vet, Kentucky native and illegal pot grower Johnny Faye, whom both the physician and monk end up aiding.
The most powerful scene in Birds involves these two—Dr. Chatterjee and Brother Flavian—when a neighborhood boy who’s been abused by his police officer father requires an emergency, homegrown procedure to repair his breathing. As Chatterjee takes up a scalpel, the boy’s mother and Flavian hold him down with all their strength. They speak softly in the boy’s ear to keep him still. The boy’s mother begins, “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope,” and Flavian responds, “To thee we cry poor banished children of Eve….”
With hopefully not too sudden a turn, this leads me to Christopher Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley Jr., the former editor of National Review. Christopher Buckley called himself a “lapsed Catholic” and “post-Catholic” in an interview for The New York Times Magazine in 2008. That sort of self-appliqué is different from Graham Greene’s “agnostic Catholic” and “atheist Catholic,” as told to The Tablet half a century ago. We know from another interview, in 2009, that Buckley exchanged more than 3,000 emails and letters with his famous father, debating the beliefs, practices and history of the Catholic Church. There is often homage in irreverence and critique, and now I wonder if Christopher Buckley is still wrestling with the faith in the way he knows best: satire.
The Relic Master is masterful, smart, feisty and fun. Buckley has taken as his subject the most corrupt era of the church. The novel opens at a relic fair in Basel, as Dismas, an ex-monk and the title character, is selling and buying wares of hair, bone and Virgin’s blood. The year is 1517, and a constipated monk named Martin Luther is lurking in the background, about to blow the Reformation wide open. Dismas’s friend and drinking partner is the famous artist and capitalist Albrecht Dürer. If you read only one novel this year and want to think and laugh a lot while doing it, choose this one. We are coming up on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s great revolt, making Master timely. And if you need to know that Christopher Buckley is a “Catholic novelist,” know that you can’t, but I suggest considering what he told an interviewer earlier this year: “I’m a fallen Christian, but I have an open mind and an open heart.”
Good Catholic novels are still all around, but beware of using the label. There are dozens of others worth mentioning, too, and I will, at a later date. Consider Brigid Pasulka, in Poland, for instance, published beautifully in the United States in translation (A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True), and Jonathan Ryan, a young American Catholic who writes horror fiction (3 Gates of the Dead). Yes, horror with a Catholic imagination. Go figure. These will have to wait for another day.