Wilfrid Sheed’s second novel follows the career of Bert Flax, a self-described “spiritual hack” who supports a fruitful and multiplying family (wife, five kids) on inspirational stories and uplifting poems for the Tiny Messenger and Catholic Women, from the first stirrings of religious doubt to either a spiritual breakthrough or a nervous breakdown. Better known as a leading book critic of his day—he published collections of his reviews in 1971 and 1978—Sheed wrote better novels, including perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.
But The Hack (1963) introduces the theme of doubt, leading to despair and exhaustion, to which Sheed would return again and again in his own literary career. It was, perhaps, the story of his life; and not only his. Son of the independent Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward—Sheed & Ward was founded in 1926 and acquired by Rowman & Littlefield seven years ago—Wilfrid Sheed was born in London in 1930 and came to America upon the outbreak of the Second World War, when his parents emigrated from England. “The sheer differentness of America imbued everything,” he wrote in a 1985 memoir of his parents: “the swollen frames and tires of the bicycles, the station wagons with kids hanging from the sides, the kids themselves gangly or strangely fat, slopping around in striped T-shirts and knickers, alien from head to toe. . . .” Sheed carefully cultivated his sense of differentness. Although he never repatriated himself to England, becoming a huge baseball fan as an expression of his deepest feeling for America, he consistently adopted the attitude of an Englishman, an outsider, alien from head to toe. The attitude perfectly reflected his own incapacity for believing wholeheartedly in anything except baseball and books.
The crisis of belief in The Hack commences when Bert finds himself despairing at the thought of composing his annual Christmas poem. Being asked about it “was like having a tray of ice emptied into your socks. The coldness came up from there, then the desolation and finally the slow melting squish.”
Modeled upon Sheed’s father, whose main source of income was the lecture platform (“Americans might not like to read but they certainly liked to listen,” Sheed comments drolly), Bert roves from parish to parish in suburban New Jersey, delivering lectures on “the Catholic literary revival, the Catholic intellectual revival, Catholics and TV, Catholics and decent literature, Catholics and better communications,” even the Communist-dominated media and its hostility to good Catholics. Feeling like a “complete fraud,” Bert “can’t seem to get the Christmas spirit.” His wife sympathizes: “Even inspiration becomes a grind,” she says.
Looking for something to shake him out of his increasing squishiness, Bert tries to sleep late one Sunday and skip mass. He can’t bring himself to, but afterwards he hops a bus to Manhattan to look up old friends from Bishop Mahoney High School. He tries to provoke a fight, taunting one friend who no longer attends mass regularly for his cowardly refusal to become “an honest-to-God atheist.” He taunts a mass-attending friend with criticisms of the Church: “It’s a cruel joke,” he complains, “they keep you a child until it’s too late.”
What Bert keeps being told instead is that he has been working too hard and does not look very well. Behind his back they whisper, “Have you read his things? They’re lovely, aren’t they?” Even his Playboy-reading friend, too sophisticated a Manhattanite to be a practicing Catholic but too lukewarm to become an atheist, agrees that he is “a very fine writer.” The compliments send him over the edge. He denies that he is the writer of the “religious stuff” they are praising. “I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax, I am not Bert Flax,” he repeats until he passes out and wakes in a hospital.
The attention shifts to his non-Catholic wife Betty, who keeps the household running while Bert recovers. The Hack then becomes an exception to the rule that English-language writing is largely a literature without children. Sheed’s portrait of a suburban wife and mother, with life moiling and churning at knee level (in his phrase), is precise and loving, despite the satirical edge. Betty is keenly aware of the minginess of her lower middle-class surroundings. Like Bert, she has her doubts: “There were no big scenes, no climaxes, only people being patient with each other and practical with each other—so bored they didn’t know they were bored anymore.” But unlike him she takes solace and delight in ordinary successes like a dinner well-prepared, Christmas drawing near, a black mood rolling away, and a husband getting back to work.
Except that Bert’s return to work is not a return “to Bert’s high standards”—or so says the Catholic Passenger, rejecting his Christmas poem. Bert announces to Betty that he has just about had it. He blames the Church for his years of “peddling crap” and becoming a “dedicated hack.” He collapses in tears. And so a relapse.
Betty blames the Catholic magazines, which depend upon “false sentiment” and pursue the goal of “keeping the uneducated uneducated.” Father Chubb, editor of the Catholic Passenger, tries to explain: “The Church in America is changing . . . er . . . on the campuses and so forth. All this gush he writes is out of place in the 1960’s.” The Catholic journals are changing. And then, Bert never “had the faintest idea what the Church was really about.” The subjects that got him worked up, Father Chubb says,
The Church arrested his spiritual and literary development by employing him in the pseudo-religious office of inspirational writing. As Betty explains, Bert “wanted to reexamine the whole thing”—the truth about a life of faith—“but he couldn’t afford to because his livelihood depended on his maintaining a certain point of view.” To acquire a sense of the sacramental or to be initiated into mystery, you cannot be a hack, who is dedicated to the concerns of mere functionaries: