Monday, July 27, 2009

America’s leading Catholic novelist

Calling it “one of the finest novels of recent years,” Ted Gioia nominates Richard Russo’s novel Empire Falls for the new canon. I agree, and would go one step further. Russo’s 2001 chronicle of a small town in Maine is easily one of the five best American novels from the Twenty Oughts. (What is this decade’s handle?)

Since Gioia summarizes the plot, I am thankfully relieved of that duty. Instead, I’d like to glance at an aspect of the novel that Gioia neglects—its Catholicism. Although I have no rights in the matter, being neither Catholic nor close to one, I have long believed that Russo is—after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995—perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today. Although his fiction is realistic, Russo is not merely a literary realist, a fifth-generation descendant of Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. Like theirs, his realism grows out of an innermost familiarity with small towns, but unlike theirs it takes flight, not upon a wind of revolt, but from acceptance of the lives he finds there. Russo’s fiction is grounded upon the deeply Catholic conviction that the world as it really is—the heavens and earth created by God—deserve the novelist’s deepest respect and closest attention. He is not interested in creating an alternative reality, because he is not interested in exhibiting his creative powers and thus confining himself to them. His sensibility, in George Weigel’s phrase, is “an unmistakably Catholic sensibility: a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

What makes this assertion all the more arresting is that Russo is pretty clearly a lapsed Catholic—a “cradle Catholic,” but no longer practicing. Yet the Catholic theme of Empire Falls is made explicit early on. In the few hours that he can spare from the Empire Grill and his daughter Tick, Miles Roby paints St. Catherine’s Church (“St. Cat’s,” as he calls it fondly). While he still attends Mass there with regularity, he is no longer a militant believer. He prefers “the notion of an all-loving God to that of an all-knowing one.” As they contemplate the church steeple that Miles is about to paint, Father Mark remarks that he “used to think God actually lived up there.” “I was just thinking how far away it is,” Miles replies. He is comforted by the idea of God’s solicitous remoteness:

It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man, just as parents had responsibilities other than raising their children?Miles does not waste much time on theology, however. With God far away, he transfers his attachment to his parish church. The rectory is one of his favorite places, and Father Mark is one of his favorite persons. He had considered taking Holy Orders until well into high school, and the “romance of the profession” stayed with him for much longer.

As his daughter points out, everyone in Empire Falls has a secret except for Miles. He is something like the town’s confessor. Where Henry James would have put the “centre of consciousness,” Russo has installed a figure of great stillness and release from striving, who is peacefully at home in the decaying paper-mill town by the polluted Knox River. Charlene, the Grill’s buxom “full service waitress” whom he desires (without taking any steps to fulfill his desire), calls him “a good man, straight and true”; his ex-wife Janine calls him an “enabler.” The truth is that he displays what Sally Fitzgerald, meditating upon a passage by Jacques Maritain, called Flannery O’Connor’s “habit of being.” Despite his failures—he dropped out of college to return home and manage a diner that he does not even own, his wife has left him for a middle-aged fitness guru—Miles has raised the level of his moral existence through the sustained and practically unseen exercise of a quiet will. He is a good man, not because he checks himself constantly against a moral code, but because he has thoroughly internalized his virtue. He doesn’t even think about it, although everyone else in town is fully aware of it.

Empire Falls is not about Miles, though. He is merely the “enabler” of the novel’s action, which occurs because his presence testifies to the reality of grace. One day, for example, he decides to scrape the old paint off the south face of St. Cat’s, even though he has only about an hour’s worth of painting left on the west face. It is, he decides, “more satisfying to be peeling something away, creating ugliness before restoring beauty.” (That’s also the history of the town in a phrase, come to think of it.) After scraping the entire wall, Miles climbs the ladder to the steeple as darkness falls:He’d felt strangely serene on the ladder, reaching farther and farther out to where the paint had bubbled and cracked. Even as he moved up and out, he felt the opposite sensation, as if he progressing down and in, through the protective paint and into the soft wood. A powerful and dangerous illusion, he knew, though he couldn’t shake the feeling that if for some reason he were to step off the ladder, he wouldn’t tumble to the ground but step onto the side of the church, as if its pull had supplanted gravity.The illusion is powerful and dangerous only because Miles does not inhabit a supernatural matrix. The real world, though, contains the certainty of grace, a feeling stronger than gravity. Its operations lead Miles down and in, scraping away lies and misperceptions to get to the truth. He scrapes away, convinced that the world, stripped bare of its cracks and bubbles, will be restored to its original beauty.

Few other American writers, living or dead, have believed as strongly as Richard Russo that the ordinary things of this world, perceived in their ordinariness, are worthy of close attention and perhaps are even redemptive.


R/T said...

Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of Russo's novel. As a thoroughly committed Flannery O'Connor enthusiast, I had never given much thought to Russo in terms of either being a Catholic novelist or being someone who compares favorably with O'Connor (and Percy and Horgan). Now, however, I must take a close look at EMPIRE FALLS, which I had previously overlooked, and do so by building upon the perspectives you have generously offered. Again, thanks.

David Murdoch said...

That's very interesting, and somewhat observant of you to pick out perhaps.

I don't know if he could really be called a catholic novelist if he no longer practices, although there may catholic themes in his style, just as one could find in the works of philosophers, artists and other people who may have transferred their experiences in faith into the work... sometimes even unwittingly.

God Bless,

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the comment. As I say, I have no qualifications to determine whether someone can really be called a Catholic novelist, but speaking as an Orthodox Jew—for whom the word observant means “practicing,” by the way—whether a writer is observant is irrelevant to determining whether he is a Jewish writer.

For me the question would be whether he is aware of the Jewish tradition in which he seeks to insert himself, or whether he participates in the Jewish dialogue. On both those scores, Russo would seem to qualify as a Catholic novelist—at least to this respectful outsider.

Stephen Tully Dierks said...

so what makes this a canon-worthy novel exactly? i get that you like that russo is a realist and that he writes about small towns and that he's Catholic and reverent. but what makes it a good piece of writing. you make no claim for the quality of the prose, apart from the included excerpts, which are underwhelming to say the least. it's great because of his themes? it's great because of the identity of the author (conservatives can do that too, huh)? so what's good about it?

D. G. Myers said...

What’s a canon?

Perhaps it is best, when reading something, to ask of it only what it sets out to provide. I was pretty clear what I was trying to do here: namely, to “glance at” the novel’s Catholicism.

Sorry that doesn’t do it for you. You should probably ignore my review of Tim Winton’s Breath too, then.

What makes Empire Falls good? I dunno. Notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching?