It is becoming evident to me that when I opened a Café Stream on Catholic novelists, I had no idea that  there were and are so many Catholic novelists, and  there is an ongoing and heated debate in some circles of the Church about exactly what constitutes “a Catholic novel.” The late priest/sociologist/novelist Father Andrew Greeley [1928-2013] authored an excellent essay on this debate in a 2008 issue of America Magazine in his discussion of the work of Jon Hassler, author of about a dozen major novels during the second half of the twentieth century. His North of Hope  is the subject of this entry’s review, but before I plunge into that, a word about defining a Catholic novel.
Father Greeley, who rarely minced words, explains the two schools of thought on the nature of a Catholic novel: “The ‘right’ contended that a novel could be called ‘Catholic’ if it presented orthodox Catholic teaching and edifying Catholic people (no “bad” priests) and was written by a “practicing” Catholic author. The ‘left’ said that any quality novel was by definition ‘Catholic,’ like James Joyce’s Ulysses.”
The two authors, in my opinion, who threw the window open on expanding the definition of a “Catholic novelist” are Graham Greene [1904-1991] and Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964]. Both authors eschewed pious, conventional treatments of Catholic subjects and found their subjects in the blunt world of human sin and weakness in which God’s saving grace appears in the most unusual of circumstances. One of Greene’s most enduring characters is “the whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory.
Britannica describes Greene’s approach thusly. “The world Greene’s characters inhabit is a fallen one, and the tone of his works emphasizes the presence of evil as a palpable force. His novels display a consistent preoccupation with sin and moral failure acted out in seedy locales characterized by danger, violence, and physical decay. Greene’s chief concern is the moral and spiritual struggles within individuals, but the larger political and social settings of his novels give such conflicts an enhanced resonance. His early novels depict a shabby Depression-stricken Europe sliding toward fascism and war, while many of his subsequent novels are set in remote locales undergoing wars, revolutions, or other political upheavals.”
Wikipedia provides a fine summary of O’Connor’s work. “She felt deeply informed by the sacramental and by [St. Thomas Aquinas’s] notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she did not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer's meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that, to her thinking, brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain, violence, and ludicrous behavior in the pursuit of the holy. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as open to the touch of divine grace. This ruled out a sentimental understanding of the stories' violence, as of her own illness. She wrote: ‘Grace changes us and the change is painful.’”
Greene and O’Connor stretched the limits of both the identities and the subjects of Catholic writers and allowed future generations of Catholic writers to express themselves and their theological worldviews with a variety of brushes. One such author is Jon Hassler, who produced twelve novels between 1977 and 2005, including the work I am citing here, North of Hope . He was an English professor for many years and novelist in residence at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. I came across his body of work very recently in an essay in America Magazine this past May. America features Catholic novelists as one of its regular literary contributions and, in my view, this journal is the finest periodical for Catholic adults undertaking ongoing study of Catholicism.
Hassler’s writing is not as secular as Graham Greene’s or as hardball as Flannery O’Connor’s, but he does not shy away from the grim realities of life, either. North of Hope combines tragedy and sin with the chronic malaise of clerical rectory life. Later in his life the author admits to an interviewer his penchant for “happy endings” in his novels—but I guess we all have our definitions of “happy.” Hassler spent his entire life in Minnesota, and literary scholars are beginning to recognize that the Gopher State has produced more than its share of Catholic clerical novels. When I began North of Hope a few weeks ago—it is a 500+ page novel—I had to laugh. In the past year alone, I have read three novels about troubled clerics based in Minnesota by three different authors--Morte d’Urban  by J.F. Powers, North of Hope  and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse  by Louise Erdrich. One explanation is the influence of St. John’s University in Collegeville, the Benedictine school that excelled in English literature as well as liturgical studies. Many of you have the Collegeville Biblical study aids in your libraries. [Hassler and Powers often bumped into each other at the St. John’s library.]
But to our novel, North of Hope is the story of Father Frank Healy, set in post-World War II Minnesota and extending into the 1980’s. Healy’s mother died in his childhood, and the lad is more than tended to by the housekeeper of his parish church, Eunice Pfeiffer, who is making a play to win the newly widowed Mr. Healy. Pfeiffer, tending the boy’s mother at her moment of death, reported to all that the woman’s last wish was that her son Frank become a priest.
An introvert coping with maternal loss, Frank Healy progresses through high school—a very handsome, intelligent, and athletic figure but something of an enigma to his peers, and thus even more intriguing and desirable to his women classmates, none more than Libby Girard. It is Libby who brings the energy to this story, albeit in a pathological way. Desirous of Frank as both a lover and a protector from her abusive father, Libby makes her play for Frank in a way that forces him to fish and cut bait on his decision to enter the college seminary. When Libby makes her final desperate play for Frank—pursuing him to his new home, the college seminary, of all places—he keeps her at arm’s length and she begins her long dolorous adulthood through three highly dysfunctional marriages and a severely troubled bipolar daughter, Verna.
There is a long break in the narrative, and we pick up Frank [now Father Frank] and Libby in a most unlikely setting, as neighbors in the Basswood Native American Reservation. Several Amazon reviewers criticized this quarter-century gap as disruptive to the rhythm of the work. On one level I agree: we learn precious little about Frank except that he was ordained and immediately assigned to teach math at an exclusive Catholic academy, where he spent the first quarter century of his priesthood. When the academy closed, and after a brief stint at the Cathedral parish where he developed panic attacks while preaching, Frank receives the bishop’s reluctant permission to rediscover his priesthood in the poorest throes of his diocese.
On the other hand, this gap in the narrative sets the stage for Libby, now working as a nurse at the reservation health center with her third husband, a seedy physician, to unfold her life’s narrative to Frank in a series of episodic crises prompted by Libby’s [and Verna’s] lifetime of trauma, poor choices, and in Libby’s case, likely undiagnosed major depression. She makes repeated and more open appeals to Frank to leave the priesthood and pick up the relationship she remembered from high school days. To his credit, Frank, who is in the throes of depression and midlife identity crisis himself, is able to save Libby from her worst self as her life continues to unravel in a series of shocking revelations and criminal conspiracies.
To focus on the plot exclusively, though, does not do justice to the full work. The bulk of this novel pivots around grimy reservation life and dysfunctional rectory life, each with a culture all its own. The story is peppered with colorful “parish people” who alternately humor and infuriate us. Frank lives with an ineffectual pastor Father Adrian, a monsignor whose life as a pastor and chancellor of the diocese was marked by extraordinary mediocrity but a private, charming piety. Playing out the string, the old pastor has few friends in the diocese, but Frank finds him a comforting presence. As the novel reaches its climax, Father Adrian demonstrates an unexpected energy of tolerance and understanding that contributes to the plot resolution.
On the other hand, there is the rectory’s housekeeper, Mrs. Tatzig. If you have ever watched an episode of “Father Brown” from British TV, you have a decent representation of the power of rectory housekeepers, at least in recent history. In a J.F. Powers short story, “The Prince of Darkness,”  an aging assistant pastor prays for a pastorate so that he might install his mother in the position before she is too old. In our story here, Mrs. Tatzig lives in the rectory and assumes the care of the old monsignor, particularly after his heart attack.
Mrs. T. does not take to Father Frank. His drinking and his preoccupation with Libby obviously do not sit well with her, but his main transgression against her is his penchant for playing cards close to the vest. She cannot read him. Libby’s crises finally disrupt rectory life, and certainly the housekeeper’s, but in this madness Frank comes to realize that his stoic and blunted interpersonal style may indeed be hurtful to Mrs. T., and he takes her into his confidence about the gravity of the crises around them. It is a subtle indication that Frank the priest is finally learning about himself, to the degree that there might be hope for his priestly vocation.
Caesar Pipe gives us a flavor of reservation life and ambiguity. Pipe draws half of his salary from his position as president of the tribe, the other half as local law enforcement officer. His laissez faire approach to the law component allows a significant drug operation to prosper among his brethren by blood. He has a basic contempt for white men, particularly their habit of fishing through holes in the ice. He is nominally Catholic, but he believes Father Frank’s daunting effort of saving the reservation church is a fool’s errand.
While the novel does not wrap up in a Pollyanna happy conclusion, most of its human trajectories appear more hopeful. Even the bishop reluctantly decides to keep the reservation church open with Father Frank at its helm and Father Adrian and Mrs. Tatzig in support. While not a classic, North of Hope is a good summer read that conveys how a church of fallible beings can still rise to the occasion in time of crisis.
I see that the recent movie “Father Stu” was less than successful at the box office, which makes the following post even harder to believe. But in 1963 J.F. Powers [1917-1999] won the National Book Award for Fiction for his Morte d’Urban, a tale of a Midwest religious order priest who wins followers for his order’s ramshackle retreat house by building a championship golf course. Powers was a layperson, but he knew the clerical landscape and the language of priest-talk to a stunning degree. I lived in a religious order for a quarter-century; this work is close to home.
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The very title of the book invokes the specter of decline, most obviously in reference to Father Urban Roche himself, a 1950’s master preacher and fundraiser for his [fictional] Midwest religious order the Clementines, a group outstanding for “exactly nothing,” as Urban knowingly puts it. Based in Chicago, Father Urban radiates through the Midwest and the Great Lakes region moving parish throngs to piety and generosity through his retreats and missions. He does much of his best work over long dinners with rich Catholics and blue pencils his sermons in fine hotels. By his own estimate he had five truly talented confreres in his order. The rest were nondescripts kept afloat by his efforts, but regrettably for him some of those lesser stars had been elected to positions of leadership in his community, to the detriment of the Church, to be sure, but particularly to Urban himself. The homebound harbor jealousy of the sort-of-rich and sort-of-famous.
It occurred to me that the story of the fictional Father Urban is set in the late 1950’s, while the famous American Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, was in his prime. Powers would certainly know of Merton. Merton’s name never appears in the novel, but he and Urban are cut from the same cloth. Both lived their vows in a fashion that suited them while doing much good for the Church and their orders. Urban was chaste, to be sure. But poverty and obedience he played like a Stradivarius, though it is hard to get too angry with his shortcomings. In the Church of his day, many were quite forgivable.
For despite his liking for five-star hotels and smooth scotch he is a gentleman missionary, too, and something of a pastoral visionary for the postwar United States Church. He obtains for his order a prime piece of downtown street level Chicago real estate which he envisioned as a religious/cultural think tank for professionals and intellectuals, where the best philosophical and theological texts and journals are featured and noted international scholars would lecture and lead discussions among the GI-Bill graduates of Catholic colleges. To his dismay, the Clementines decide upon old seminary castoff décor with a library of its inhouse publications and devotionals instead [“Ask Father Clem’ pamphlets], material we seminarians of the 1960’s would have referred to as “pious drivel.”
Urban comes to a crossroad of his own when his provincial pulled him off the road and reassigned him to “the newest white elephant” of the order [p. 25], a ramshackle property in rural Minnesota destined to become a retreat center. To be sure, there is a personal twist of the knife in this assignment—it was delivered by letter, not in person, and Urban, for all his ministerial gifts, was placed under the command of a local superior, Father Wilfrid, a living, breathing proof that Catholic institutional life was not immune to The Peter Principle.
The Conversion of the White Elephant, which is the setting for most to the narrative, is a testimony to the many talents and mysteries of Father Urban, who begins his exile as essentially an aging day laborer mishandling tools on tasks that a local skilled professional could have dispatched at a minimum of time and cost. Wilfred never advanced to that next administrative maxim, that “time is money,” nor to the idea that Urban and the other priest-handymen might be more profitable to the project if they were released for weekend work in nearby parishes offering Masses, hearing confessions, and talking up the retreat project.
Urban’s mood during this period ranges from sardonic to philosophical. It took every ounce of self-control to eat the steady diet of fish from a backwater pond on the property [“a fisherman’s paradise” according to Father Clem’s pamphlets] or to endure the cold in his room, given Wilfred’s refusal to heat that wing of the building. [“But you refuse to wear long underwear, Father Urban!”] For a time, there is a battle of wits between Urban and his superior, until Urban subtly plants the seed in Wilfred’s mind that if the Clementine priests [namely Urban] cannot circulate in the diocese, the Jesuits will soon usurp the apostolic landscape, or at least this chilly quadrant of Minnesota.
And so it happened that Urban became a local diocesan player and, at the request of the bishop, served as a substitute pastor for a growing parish while doing what he did best, selling the community on the Clementine retreat venture while at the same time angling for a promising sinecure as permanent pastor of a growing parish. He is successful in the former, but not so much in the latter. [“For a traveling retreat master, you seem to enjoy parish work a great deal,” said the bishop without smiling in the presence of one of his own men.] The retreat house enjoys numerical success in terms of retreatants, but financial wizard that he is, Urban realizes that the retreat house will not sustain itself with its steady stream of blue-collar Catholic men. As he explains to Wilfred, the retreat center needs more affluent Catholic businessmen, the type who like to pray…and play golf.
Urban has been scheming with his primary high roller benefactor to purchase a large tract of land adjacent to the retreat center, and this respectable course is finished in time for the late spring. The golfing venture is highly successful and, not surprisingly, attracted a sizeable number of local clergy including the bishop himself, whose gaze across the Clementine compound inspired thoughts of a diocesan seminary. Meanwhile, the Clementines themselves, seeing the transformation of the White Elephant, and looking for a leader in the mold of the newly elected John XXIII, turned to Urban to lead them into the next decade.
By the time Urban received word of his election, he was dead—not quite physically, as that would have been too kind. Matters having come to a head—literally and figuratively—during a round of golf with the bishop, the man of the world gradually withdrew from it into a cloud of pain, fatigue, illness, and confusion. Without the old Urban, the Clementines of the Midwest watched their property and their relevance, such as it was, dissolve under the crushing weight of a modern Church and a modern America. Not even the five competent Clementines understood the true nature of this paradigm shift, and they blamed Urban, bitterly, for what was befalling them.
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I was going to attempt an analysis of what precisely the author was trying to achieve here, but I came across an excellent essay on “Morte d’Urban” by Kevin Spinale in America from 2014 which, along with some thoughtful reader posts, summarizes better than I could the complexities of this novel and its meaning for the Church and the priesthood. I recommend the America essay, but I particularly recommend this book.
He is not among the most discussed Catholic authors in the United States when the role of the twentieth century is taken in literary discussions. Some would argue that his output was limited: he produced only two best-selling novels, though the same can be said of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers—and in Powers’ case, the books were a quarter-century apart. The hesitation to raise the flag of Edwin O’Connor [1918-1968] to its rightful place probably has more to do with his timing. For in his two masterpieces, The Last Hurrah [1956, twenty-week best seller and film] and The Edge of Sadness [1961, Pulitzer Prize Winner] O’Connor chronicles the decline of two institutions at a time when the rapidly changing American culture was too impatient to provide decent burials.
A Family of His Own: The Life of Edwin O’Connor  is the story of a Catholic layman who crafted both real families and literary ones and lived comfortably in both until his untimely death in 1968 seated at his typewriter. The author, Charles Duffy, was a professor of English at Catholic Providence College in Rhode Island at the time this work was researched, a favorable platform from which to chronicle O’Connor’s childhood in nearby Woonsocket. Although O’Connor would live in Boston for most of his adult life, he remained a Woonsocket favorite son. O’Connor’s father was a physician, albeit an unconventional one. While the future novelist respected his father, it is true that his best novels feature complicated interactions between men of different generations.
O’Connor attended Notre Dame at South Bend where he encountered one of the most influential men in his career. Frank O’Malley was early in his 42-year tenure as professor in the English department, where he inspired, cajoled, and counseled generations of Fighting Irish. When O’Malley learned that O’Connor was majoring in journalism, he quickly steered him to literature and particularly toward the great Catholic writers of the time. Duffy cites O’Malley’s advice, “journalism is something you can pick up in a month; far better to sink one’s teeth into literature….” [p. 38] In later years O’Connor would make an annual pilgrimage to see his college mentor, though O’Malley’s worsening alcoholism probably confirmed O’Connor’s lifelong teetotaling.
In 1940 O’Connor embarked on a radio career, working at stations in Woonsocket, Hartford, and West Palm Beach, even hiring an agent to peddle his short stories and radio scripts. In 1942 he entered the Coast Guard, where his assignment to the “Cape Cod Beach Patrol” left him time to hone his writing skill, fed by the inevitable foibles and ironies of organized military living. After the war he settled on Beacon Street in Boston, for all practical purposes his home for the rest of his life and developed an engaging social circle that included John F. Kennedy, then embracing politics; one of the book’s mysteries is how O’Connor sustained his social outings and dining on his meager income.
Against his father’s wishes, O’Connor left radio entirely and embarked as a freelance writer. He developed his lifelong ritual of writing from early morning till noon, then socializing with friends, “making the rounds,” at the editorial offices of the papers and journals of Beantown. His “persevering phase” [Chapter Seven] produced some novels, short stories, and essays. But what he was also doing was researching the most successful novel of his career. Duffy describes the gestation of The Last Hurrah in detail, in terms of its artistic redaction and its tortuous route to the editors of Little, Brown, who began to realize that it “just might have a huge best-seller on its hands.” [p. 177]
The Last Hurrah  is the classic tale of the denouement of a big city political boss, seen through the eyes of his younger nephew. The worst kept secret in America was the inspiration for the novel’s central figure, Mayor Frank Skeffington. Suffice to say that Boston’s actual mayor and Massachusetts governor, James Curley, threatened a lawsuit. Curley backed down only when the rights of the book were sold to Hollywood [see trailer], and the controversial public servant began to see O’Connor’s book as a late-in-the day redemption of a complicated career which had included a prison stretch.
The Last Hurrah describes a mayoral campaign in which the fictional aging Irish mayor and political Godfather Frank Skeffington wishes to pass along a memorial of his skills and accomplishments--as well as a defense of his methods--to the succeeding generations of his family. The title of the book itself describes the trajectory of the contest. His aging advisors and hangers on have no answer for the changing demographics of the city and the advent of the television era of campaigning. Skeffington pulls all the right strings that have won for him in the past, but as he explains to his nephew after his defeat, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had robbed the big city mayors of much of their social patronage.
The Last Hurrah—in hardcover, paperback, and film rights—made O’Connor an affluent man. But in Chapter Nine, “The Interlude,” Duffy describes a five-year creative hiatus in which the author spent his money and indulged in an autobiographical children’s novelette. Some critics believed that “The Last Hurrah” was a shining moment in an otherwise mediocre career. But O’Connor was a daily communicant at the Paulist Center Masses in downtown Boston and conversant with Catholic affairs of the day. In the late 1950’s, on the heels of Vatican II, he began work on his second masterpiece, this one rooted in the heart of a Catholic priest.
The Edge of Sadness  “is O’Connor’s best novel.” [p. 249] For a Catholic in particular, this novel exposed the timelessness of even an imperfect priest set against the declining structure of big city ethnic Catholicism. Duffy speaks of the book’s main character, Father Hugh Kennedy, as the embodiment of loneliness, a recovering alcoholic navigating the challenges of an abandoned inner city parish megalith, a naïve assistant cleric, a powerful priestly classmate dying of anger, and a pathological family from his past, whose slum landlord patriarch’s sins of greed and control far outweigh Mayor Skeffington’s in Hurrah.
With the release of “Sadness,” O’Connor was fatigued. But this confirmed bachelor surprised everyone in 1962 with his marriage to Veniette Caswell Weil, a divorcee, but only after her annulment had been procured. Despite their differences of temperament, the marriage was exceedingly happy by all accounts. O’Connor was an excellent stepfather to Veniette’s ten-year-old son, who was an important source for this work. Duffy includes O’Connor’s critique of American Catholicism at this time. “Most sermons were unprepared, sloppy, and dull…local churches had ignored the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963…he saw that the Church might lose a whole generation through the sheer apathy generated in this one weekly encounter between the pastor and his flock.” [p. 285] O’Connor was remarkably prescient.
O’Connor would later write a screenplay and a political novel based loosely on the Kennedy clan. But as a national figure, O’Connor was losing ground to the 1960’s “cultural revolution.” His sales declining and living beyond his means, O’Connor was sitting at his desk at work on what he hoped was another epic novel when he died suddenly on March 22, 1968, two weeks before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Duffy writes that “during the 1970’s and 1980’s Edwin O’Connor simply fell from view…. but enjoyed a revival of sorts in the 1990’s when Frank McHugh’s Angela’s Ashes reignited interest in Irish fiction in the United States. [p. 357]
Duffy captures the essence of the man and his work product successfully; he builds the case that both of O’Connor’s epic novels are not only captivating entertainment but precious snapshots of a changing America and a changing Catholic Church.
NOTE: I will review each of O’Connor’s two major novels in coming weeks.
I must have slept through a good number of my college classes on American Literature, because whenever I tell my contemporaries I am reading a novel by Caroline Gordon [1895-1981], I get a blank stare until I add that she was married to the American poet Alan Tate [1899-1979], and then everybody goes, “Oh, Allen Tate’s wife.” Until a year or so ago, I did not know of the existence of either writer until I saw Gordon’s name cited in a variety of treatments on Catholic novelists. I decided to take a chance on her 1956 noel, The Malefactors, released again in 2019 in the Cluny Classic series. Cluny, incidentally, is an intriguing publishing venture to restore both the fiction and nonfiction of the past Catholic century from intellectual and textual oblivion.
Caroline Gordon is not as well-known as Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, or Edwin O’Connor in the tradition of influential Catholic novelists, but she was a central figure in the family of such writers. She was married to Allen Tate, the poet, and lived in his shadow. Her first novel Penhally appeared in 1931, and her last, The Malefactors, which will be reviewed here, was published in 1956. Her guidance to friends, fellow authors, and students extended well into the 1970’s from her position as faculty member at the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution. I should add here that in 2018 the letters of Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor were published and are now available, which give us a close-up on Gordon’s influence upon O’Connor as the latter developed her provocative style.
Caroline Gordon: A Biography  by Veronica A. Makowsky, gives us a picture of a woman who lived “at the center of things” while helping to bring consciousness of Southern writing to the East Coast literary establishment. Gordon grew up and studied in Clarksville, Tennessee, and came into public prominence as a significant author at the time of the Southern Agrarian Movement, a collection of writers--many associated with Vanderbilt University—who, in 1930, called attention to the growing and prolific contribution of Southern literature. The most famous of this movement is Robert Penn Warren, but the distinctiveness and vigor of this regional style extended well into the twentieth century and includes such greats as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Dorothy Day took note of the Southern Agrarian Movement and became friends with Gordon, who creates a Dorothy Day figure in The Malefactors.
Gordon never lost her taste for southern living—she and her husband Allen would buy a homestead in Clarksville called “BenFolly” which became something of a retreat for blooming authors east of the Mississippi. Among frequent guests were Robert Lowell, who camped on the lawn one summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, T. S. Eliot, Warren, and Ford Madox Ford. Ford became a mentor to Gordon and encouraged her to complete and submit her first novel, Penhally , a work which received at best a mediocre reception and poor traffic at the cash register. She would write about a half-dozen novels over the next quarter-century which demonstrated a steady proficiency in the art, though it was her short stories that won her several awards over her career. Her final novel, The Malefactors  was published amidst some controversy.
Gordon’s enduring contribution lies in her analysis of literature and imparting such wisdom to future generations. She devoted much time over the final decades of her life to addressing the philosophical questions of the novel as art—can a female author authentically represent a male hero, for example, as Gordon herself did in The Malefactors? She was an avid correspondent—her exchange of letters with Flannery O’Connor, for example, was published in 2018. In her seniority she taught and consulted at the University of Dallas, a Catholic institution.
Graham Green converted to Catholicism to win the hand of a true believer in marriage. Caroline Gordon, by contrast, converted to Catholicism in midlife  to save her failing marriage to Tate, for whom monogamy was not a virtue. The couple would later divorce, remarry, and divorce again; they remained friends till Tate’s death. Gordon did not talk to her literary friends about her religious instructions for fear of a cynical backlash, for her conversion was intimately connected to her identity as a literary artist. Her description of her conversion, and its relationship to creative writing, is fascinating. In a letter to a friend, she tells of the experience:
“I am converted, I suppose, mostly by reading the Gospels. I was reading the Gospel of St. Mark last summer, out at Robbers Rocks, and all of a sudden, the words that had been in my memory all my life were saying something I’d never heard before. I think I was converted by my own work, too. I have lived most of my life on the evidence of things not seen—what else is writing a novel but that? And my work has progressed slowly and steadily in one direction. At a certain point I found the Church squarely in the path. I couldn’t jump over it and wouldn’t go around it, so had to go into it…. I really would like to tell you what being in the Church is like but can’t. It’s like suddenly being given authority to believe all the things you’ve surmised. Artists are fundamentally religious, I suppose, or they’re no good.” [Makowsky, Caroline Gordon: A Biography (1989), pp. 184-185] Vintage Flannery O’Connor before there was Flannery O’Connor.
The Malefactors was written a quarter century after Penhally and a decade after her conversion to Catholicism. The title comes from the Latin, “to do evil,” and the theme of the book reflects the Catholic doctrine that even the worst of us are granted the grace of conversion. It will never be compared to Ulysses or Gone With the Wind, but it is an intriguing window on human nature, an imaginative telling of an old tale, a reminder that while there are Ten Commandments and seven deadly sins, there are infinite variations and consequences for going off the moral reservation. [America Magazine revisited The Malefactors with a critical review in April 2021.]
Set in the contemporary age [1950’s] the story begins with a prolonged outdoor cocktail party/livestock exhibition on a “gentleman farmer’s estate.” The “gentleman” farmer is a woman, Vera Claiborne, president of the Red Poll Breeders’ Association of the Atlantic Seaboard States. In recent years she had taken to raising Red Poll cattle, rising early each morning to slip into work clothes and head for the herd. Various family members and friends wander through the event on spacious grounds dotted with eccentric statues including saints. Aunt Virginia, an invalid, is firmly ensconced in the main house. Max, a middle-aged avuncular homosexual, lives on the property as a permanent fixture, ever available to spice conversation or pour oil on troubled waters. There is an atmosphere of “old money,” as they used to say, in this case from Vera’s side of the family.
But all is not well at the homestead. Tom Claiborne, Vera’s husband of twenty years and the centerpiece of the novel, the “malefactor,” if you will, is in the throes of midlife depression. Having had early success as a poet and editor, he has not written anything in ten years. As his wife heads for the farm each day, Tom heads for his writing den, locks the door, and sleeps on the couch until dinner. For years he has lied to his wife about “breakthroughs” or budding new insights, but by the time of this writing, Vera has come to accept her childless marriage for what it is and throws herself into her work.
The gamechanger is the visit of Vera’s distant cousin, Cynthia, who arrives for the party and stays with the couple for a time. Cynthia is fourteen years younger than Tom; she asks him to critique her writings. Whether her writing is truly noteworthy, or Tom is simply grateful to be needed by a younger admirer, is irrelevant; they begin an affair that intensifies as Cynthia returns to New York. [Several reviewers note an autobiographical tone as Gordon divorced Tate for his frequent infidelities.] The discovery of the affair by Vera is a startling moment in an otherwise tranquil narrative.
Thus begins a dark night of the soul for all involved, though consistent with the body of the work, the intensity of the experience is Tom’s. Resuming his career as an editor, he takes up residence with Cynthia in a fashionable New York apartment after the dramatic discovery of the affair by Vera, who leaves him. For a time, he sloughs off his depression to return to work as an editor in the big city. But Tom comes to discover what many men in his position also experience: his career has crested as his younger lover’s is just taking off.
Tom would like to come home. But where is home? This is the moral conundrum. Vera’s life takes a self-destructive turn, for which Tom feels considerable remorse, and she refuses to communicate with him. Adrift and drinking heavily, he receives an unexpected request to assist a religious sister in her biography of a poet, an old friend of Tom’s, who had committed suicide some years before. In keeping his appointment to meet the sister, he is surprised to discover that she is conducting her research in an inner-city service center, with a constant stream of the hungry and the needy. In this unexpected setting—based upon the author’s real-life friendship with the ministry of Dorothy Day—Tom finds the energy to pursue his wife and begin tending to his better self, though the novel ends only with hints of what Tom’s conversion may look like.
The 2021 America review explains both the external and the internal reasons why The Malefactors was poorly received and did not sell as her earlier works had. In the first instance, there was a significant kerfuffle within the publishing world about the reaction of Dorothy Day over her depiction through a fictional character in the book. As America described the circumstances:
“The odds of this “strange book” (to cite the original jacket cover) succeeding were diminished before it reached readers’ hands. Gordon had originally dedicated the work to Dorothy Day, who is refracted in the character of Catherine Pollard. Day was astonished to find herself rendered, in Paul Elie’s words, “as a holy seductress with a blasphemous past”—including participation in a Black Mass. Although Gordon considered the book “a tribute, an act of devotion,” Day wrote “forceful letters” demanding that the dedication “To Dorothy Day,” as well as her character’s dabbling in Satanism, be excised. As Bainard Cheney notes, “The decision, just before publication, to eliminate the dedication, gave the publisher cold feet, and the novel was shelved rather than promoted: perhaps a considerable reason for its small sale.”
Reviewers then and today have other reservations. Among them was the author’s clumsy way of describing saints. “She certainly had a hard time making those [Catholic Worker] people believable,” O’Connor admitted. In truth, O’Connor had major reservations about the book. Gordon had written two glowing reviews of O’Connor’s novels, and again quoting America:
“When Gordon’s agent approached O’Connor requesting a kind of quid pro quo for Gordon’s praise of Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor ducked, indicating that “it would be impertinent for me to comment on the book, simply because I have too much to learn from it.”
Others found the book tedious. I did not find that the case, but on the few times I have plunged into the Southern School I do find that the clocks run slower, at least outside of Atlanta. Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome  reads like a terrorist attack viewed from a veranda.
I did find my research into this Catholic novelist a rewarding tour on several fronts—as exposure to American literary currents in the early and mid-twentieth century as well as the way in which Catholic philosophy shaped both the literary and the moral work of a conscientious artist in her time.
I was hesitant to begin a Catechist Café Stream on Catholic novelists because, sad to say, I never received a strong education in American literature. In the seminary I read J.F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, the story of a Midwesterner priest during the collapse of his religious order in the 1950’s, just prior to Vatican II. I confess, then, that this Stream of the Café is as much for me as the reader. The inspiration to enter the world of Catholic novelists came from two sources. Nick Ripratazone’s Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  caught my eye and I eventually reviewed it for Amazon last year.
The other source of inspiration was, surprisingly, a short-lived weekly podcast called “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People.” The Jamaican bestselling novelist Marlon James teamed up with Jake Morrissey, editor of Riverhead/Penguin Books to discuss literature by authors who have passed away. [Their tongue-in-cheek premise: the dead cannot complain.] This was a humorous, salty, and erudite examination [R-rated] of authors and their works, going back as far as Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. What surprised me—stunned me, actually—was the interest of these two worldly academics in authors and works in a Catholic milieu. There was never a week, for example, when mention of Flannery O’Connor or Toni Morrison was overlooked.
It would surprise many Catholics, I think, to learn that one of our own, namely Morrison [1931-2019], is an aggressively targeted author in states which are into the book banning business, such as Texas. Morrison’s body of work is a vivid description of the African American experience, past and present. To my way of thinking, an exploration of Morrison’s novels on racial struggle would be an ideal resource for older adolescents and adult faith formation. Morrison is the first African American woman author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work. 
There are four ways I study Catholic novelists—a format I developed for myself.  What is the author’s biography, or specifically, how did he or she encounter the Catholic Faith in the first place? Edwin O’Connor [1918-1968], the author of the classic The Edge of Sadness ’ was a cradle Catholic from Rhode Island. [I reviewed this work for Amazon in 2014.] By contrast, Graham Greene [1904-1991] converted to Catholicism to marry his girlfriend, a devout Catholic. Caroline Gordon [1895-1981] converted in her adult years, influenced by fellow Catholic novelists Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. Morrison converted to Catholicism in her teen years.
The second stage is examining how a Catholic novelist lived and/or experienced the faith and how that experience impacted the writing. This is not always easy, and in some cases I have had to read biographies of the authors to get a sense of that. The Unquiet Englishman , for example, reveals that Graham Greene did not give up all his worldly habits of the flesh immediately after his adult baptism, but neither did he give up going to confession in times of crisis.
We know a great deal about some Catholic novelists, and precious little about others. I am sure that as I sit here at the keyboard, there are dozens of graduate students working on doctoral theses involving Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], whose small but powerful body of work—novels and short stories—is one of the most enigmatic of all Catholic twentieth century writers. O’Connor, in turn, received considerable guidance from a lesser-known Catholic novelist and professor, Caroline Gordon.
The third thing I look for is the religious influence in the authors’ novels. The question of the relationship of Catholicism to the author’s product is not accidental. Graham Greene’s biographer notes that the author gave considerable thought to the question, as did Flannery O’Connor in her letters, and Gordon with her students in her years as a professor at the University of Dallas.
In some novels the connection is obvious, in that the very subject is a Catholic setting. I reviewed Jame Carroll’s The Cloister  a few years ago, a novel set intermittently between the medieval couple Abelard and Heloise, the Holocaust, and a burned-out Catholic priest in the 1950's. I just completed my second read of The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor. This is the story of a middle-aged priest returning to his diocese after four years in alcohol rehabilitation. He is assigned pastor to the poorest downtown church in his diocese. What he discovers about his soul and his priesthood in this broken parish is profoundly moving. And yet, the novel is not clumsy piety, far from it. Flannery O’Connor—who, as my mother was wont to say, “had a mouth on her” -- despised what we would call in the seminary “smarmy tales” of piety, religiosity without art. As a rule, outstanding Catholic novels in my experience are true to either Aristotle’s principles of drama in The Poetics, one of the most valuable books in my seminary training, and/or the existential “slice of life” style, the unvarnished account of human experience that penetrates the soul. Reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood  the first time was a punch in the gut.
The fourth focus of Catholic novels is their purpose—all the works by Catholic authors which have stood the test of time are conversion and redemption stories. It is as if the Catholic novelist can never quite run away from the essential truth of the universe, that God has reached out to save—sometimes in the most subtle of ways, and at other times in overly dramatic ones. The way that the conversion is narrated in their plotlines varies, as well as the depth of the conversion. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American  the jaded British journalist reporting on the 1954 defeat of the French in Viet Nam is changed by the traumatic experience—though we are not talking Paul on the road to Damascus here. Conversion in this work is confined to giving up a Vietnamese lover and the opium pipe, but it is something, with a promise of more to come. [As a working journalist Greene did cover the final French-Vietnamese clash in 1954, and having gotten caught in a crossfire, he desperately sought and found a Catholic priest to hear his confession.]
Which brings me to an ultimate point. What I am about to say regarding Catholic authors and their novels has been true of all the great art in history. Those creating from positions of Faith, in its broadest sense, are preaching sermons that we can never hear from our pulpits. In our churches and religious education programs we teach and learn the framework—the outline if you will—of Biblical/Christian life. In art—in this case, the novel—we see the framework lived or not lived in real time. Jesus was a master at the existential expression: his parables, notably the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, to cite a few, put flesh on the bones to the question of what I must do to be saved. I referred earlier to Aristotle’s Poetics; written several centuries before Christ. In this treatment on the rules of classical tragedy, Aristotle describes the emotional catharsis [literally, the “washing out of the emotions”] of beholding good people who make dreadful mistakes and the inevitable fates that befall them. Consider Oedipus Rex.
The Catholic novelist with any meaningful grasp of the Redemptive Act cannot but reenact the fall of Adam and the Redemption by Christ in his or her narrative. The great Catholic novelists, past and present, are celebrated not just by elegant narrative and imaginative events—though these are present—but for taking us to a deeper dimension of the Christian Mystery. They belong in our journey of Faith.
Earlier in 2021 I came across several commentaries in the Jesuit journal America featuring the persona and writings of the Irish novelist Sally Rooney. America’s description of her was glowing. In reviewing her 2021 work Beautiful World, Where Are You? Cieran Freeman entitles his piece “Sally Rooney writes for millennials in a post-Catholic world” [October 15, 2021]. In the same week James T. Keenan penned for America “Sally Rooney isn’t just the ‘Snapchat Generation’s’ Catholic novelist (but she is that).” [October 19, 2021] And over in Catholic Commonweal, Anthony Domestico, in his year-end summary of 2021 fiction, writes “Lord knows the world doesn’t need more Rooney discourse, so I won’t add to it other than to say that this novel’s [Beautiful World] vision of beauty suffusing and sustaining the world was the most Catholic thing I read in fiction all year.” [December 14, 2021]
I do not read many novels, preferring non-fiction, and I started the Catholic Novel Stream of the Catechist Café to enrich myself as much as anyone. One of my problems is rebuilding a cultural ego after my English seminary professor told me to my face that I was an unlettered philistine. After I looked up the word philistine, I was deeply wounded, and I always felt [and still do] that I am at a cultural literary disadvantage even at this late age of my life. It does not help, either, that my favorite Catholic novelist, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels in his lifetime, twenty-five years apart.
Sally Rooney, by contrast, has written three extraordinarily successful novels by the age of thirty: Conversation with Friends ; Normal People  and Beautiful World, Where Are You? . All three works have won awards and sold immense copies while stirring considerable conversation in book circles about the challenges of contemporary life for the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts. Father Liam Power summarizes his impression of her body of work: “She has given us an insight into the issues that are troubling and challenging for the millennials and Generation Z. I must confess that I find it difficult to appreciate how that generation really feels about the deeper spiritual challenges that life throws at us. She pulls back the curtain for us. She at least raises the question of the presence of the Divine as a response to the angst or ennui, the restlessness and the search for meaning in a troubled world.” [November 16, 2021] Dublin’s Trinity College entry in Wikipedia cites the great authors who have graduated from the institution: Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Percy French, William Trevor, Sally Rooney, Oliver Goldsmith and William Congreve. Ms. Rooney stands in vaunted company.
I will look at the novels in a moment, but an introduction to the author herself is appropriate. Sally Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar, Ireland, and freely admits in her interviews that she remains a parochial Irish resident despite her fame and recent wealth. At Trinity College she excelled as a debater as well as a writer, and she began her first novel while a graduate student. In her self-deprecating humor in interviews, she states that given her limited world experience—home and college—she set her first two novels in those contexts, because this is the world she knew.
Born a Catholic, Rooney bears no great love for the institutional Church today. In this she shares considerable company with others in her generation. But Ireland is not exactly the United States. I am reminded of the Anna Karenina Principle which states that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Young Catholics or alienated Catholics in Ireland have somewhat different stresses with the institutional Church than their United States counterparts. In Ireland, given the intimacy of church and state over many generations, youthful reformers—mostly Catholic by birth--working toward economic justice and human rights have often found themselves at odds with their religious leadership as they attempt to address the recent spate of difficulties on the Emerald Isle. Ireland’s economy, which looked so promising at the turn of the century, has never recovered from the 2008 economic crash. Much of the burden of this enduring economic downturn has fallen precisely on the Millennial-Generation Z population, most of whom are well educated but frustrated by limited job opportunities.
Rooney identifies herself as a Marxist, but she is no Lenin or Trotsky. Rather, she is acutely aware of the shortcomings of the capitalist system and its inability to “self-correct,” so to speak. In her interviews she has expressed surprise and discomfort at the attention and particularly the money that has come her way with the success of her books. There is a strain in her thought that her money has come too easily while many who have worked harder have far less to show for their labors.
Given the author’s sympathies for a just society, one would think that the papacy of Pope Francis might get a good hearing for those of Rooney’s generation. However, the issue of abuse of minors and vulnerable populations has ravaged religion in Ireland in ways far greater than, say, the Cardinal McCarrick revelations in the U.S. in 2018. To grasp the religious dispositions of Rooney and her generations, one must understand “The Magdalene Laundries.” “Magdalene” is shorthand for the forced institutionalization of thousands of young Irish girls in religious reformatories without due process—most as victims of rape, incest, forced prostitution, illegitimate pregnancy, mental health issues, etc., a practice which began before 1900 and endured as late as 1996.
Put simply, “bad girls” as labeled thus by parents, police, social workers, and church personnel, were warehoused for the purposes of providing institutional laundering services and similar production. There was no secret about these institutions. Clients ranged from clergy to the Irish Army, and eventually private contracting became a source of revenue for the Church. James Joyce makes passing references to these institutions in several of his novels. The recent discovery of unmarked graves and the reluctance of some religious authorities to release records, as well as the state’s awkward ambivalence about making a full apology for its role in the enduring saga, has prolonged a sense of anger and alienation from the Irish Catholic Church, which has seen its influence and numbers drastically diminished in the twenty-first century. [I happened to be vacationing on Valencia Island, the westernmost tip of Ireland in 2015, and was present when the Church announced the closing of the two parishes on the island: Knightstown, where I was staying, and Chapeltown down the road.]
Rooney has commented on the Magdalene scandal as the “institutionalization of the unwanted” in Irish society. Her criticism of the Church has prompted comparisons to the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who in 1990 infamously tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on live TV, during an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” What was not known or widely appreciated at the time was that O’Connor herself had spent eighteen months in a Magdalene Laundry for shoplifting as a teen. Rooney was born the year after O’Connor’s TV appearance became an international controversy, and thus she grew up in an environment where Catholic credibility was crumbling in her formative years.
This brings us to the essence of Rooney’s writings. Some may argue, I suppose, that calling Rooney a “Catholic” novelist is something of a stretch. However, I am not aware that her call for the Church to disengage from its unholy marriage with Irish politics is a disqualifying factor. Nor do I think her disillusionment with structural Catholicism is particularly disturbing. She has plenty of company there, on both sides of the Atlantic. Catholic novelists are not simply novelists who happen to be Catholic. They bring their experience of Catholic life and belief into their work product, whether that experience is positive or negative. What I see in Rooney’s writing is an effort to rebuild an ethic of love, meaning, and just relationships in the tangle of a rudderless society, or more succinctly, in an Irish culture that has been orphaned in some real sense by the failure of the Church of her origin and the onrush of a secularism that is more fuss than feathers.
Rooney’s novels are slices of life. There are no climactic finales like the Baptism scene in The Godfather in these novels. Rather, we are pulled into interpersonal dynamics with an ongoing captivating attraction that evokes strong reactions from the readers, or at least this was my experience of her second and third novels. Rooney’s first novel is Conversations with Friends . This is the novel I did not read, and I am attaching a review/synopsis here. My first venture with Rooney’s writing was Normal People . The plotline is quite simple, the story of a high school romance of sorts between Connell and Marianne that continues into college and early adulthood. When my wife asked me about the book halfway through my reading, I joked that it seemed like a cross between Catcher in the Rye and “The Gilmore Girls” [which we are presently binge watching.] As it turned out, I was not far wrong, for Normal People embodies the enormously complex chess game of youthful relationships from popularity to economics to sexual intimacy. [The HULU streaming service turned the book into a TV miniseries.]
Normal People does not belittle religion; it simply assumes its irrelevance. Given this vacuum, Connell and Marianne must reinvent the wheel and create an ethos to their relationship that is, at times, painful to behold. The reader can deduce the construction of relational rules and the consequences of when they are broken. In high school Connell is the alpha male and the heart throb of every girl on campus. Marianne, by contrast, is a Plain Jane with no friends. It is only by pure chance that they hook up. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, and in a sequence of quick hellos they discover that rarest of adolescent mediums, actual conversation, stilted as it is. Marianne’s insecurity in this relationship is not assuaged by Connell’s fear of discovery—not by his mother, who advises him to use condoms—but by the student body, which would condemn his slumming around with an undesirable.
If anyone has lost belief in the reality of mortal sin, such belief will be quickly restored when Connell commits a biggie. As the prom comes up on the calendar, he disses Marianne and invites a class starlet, to keep up appearances. As a reader, this betrayal was a blow to the gut, and I wondered if this couple would/could ever survive this breech. But in some inexplicable way they soldier on into a new world where Marianne becomes a popular and accomplished collegian as Connell finds his old high school successes are insufficient for the brave new world of higher education. This reversal of roles brings its own generational challenges, but without spoiling the plot, I found the conclusion hopeful and satisfying. Connell steps up to the plate later in the book when the stakes are much higher, and the work closes with a sense that somehow both parties have achieved a measure of moral consciousness around friendship and respect.
Beautiful World, Where Are You?  takes us into the world of that 25–30-year-old window of life where adults begin to fret over what they have not yet accomplished—such as arriving at a satisfying and sustaining philosophy of meaning, and successful coupling. The plot line is uncomplicated: the heroines are Alice, a successful novelist, and her best friend from school days, Eileen, who labors away as a proofreader. Some reviewers see the Alice character as an autobiographical projection of Rooney herself, for Alice has made a bundle from her success but is clearly discontent. Both women are looking for life partners though they adopt different strategies for the hunt.
Rooney adopts an intriguing literary device into this novel: the narrative is interspersed with lengthy emails between Alice and Eileen. I found these interjections intriguing, as they serve as a window to how each writer interprets the events of their lives in the expanse of a lengthy email letter. Much of the email correspondence, particularly in the early going, is the philosophical exchange one used to hear in coffee houses on college campuses: the search for a philosophical system to make sense out of a scrambled twenty-first century with its economic and social injustices. As the book progresses, the correspondents begin to question the honesty and the efficaciousness of their intellectual strategizing and begin a very subtle shift toward a more existential and practical approach to their life dilemmas.
Alice, in a state of exhaustion and mental health issues, rents an old rectory in the countryside for something of a sabbatical. She uses an online dating app and meets Felix, a blue-collar worker in an Amazon-like warehouse. This union of a rich novelist with a day laborer produces colorful exchanges, as one might expect. It also produces what I would call “a politicization of sex” as both partners seem to jockey around their intimacies as a barometer of their general relationship. There is a fair amount of explicit sex in this novel, but as I joked to a good friend who also read the book, “they kind of talk it to death.”
Eileen, for her part, knows exactly whom she wants, her friend Simon, five years her senior whom she has known since childhood. The problem here is that Simon is in no hurry for a commitment. He is content with his work in a social reform bureaucracy. He also happens to be a devout Catholic. To the degree that after finally bedding Eileen for a long night of bliss, he announces in the morning that he is attending his parish’s 9 AM Mass. Eileen tags along and witnesses Simon’s devotion to the parts of the Mass. After Mass, she asks him if, during the penitential rite, he was seeking forgiveness for their activities of a few hours earlier. Simon assures her that he had not; a spot-on unintended commentary on the religious/sexual mores of the generations behind me.
It is also intriguing that Jesus of Nazareth enjoys several cameo appearances in this work. I found hope in this. At several points as the book progresses the two email correspondents begin to question their quests for answers from nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers and haltingly begin to speculate about Jesus. Both respect that he delivered a good message for the world and seemed to resonate with their concerns for a more just society. Neither is quite ready to “buy the resurrection from the dead” thing. The author, certainly, and the novel’s two women characters, must have learned about “the resurrection thing” in their youth in Ireland. How did they lose it, or what convinced them to abandon the key tenet of Catholic faith? What I would not give to invite both Alice and Eileen to a coffee shop and ask them about their faith journeys.
I am going to return to Rooney’s works for a second entry on this blog stream, this one to discuss her works from a Catholic catechetical and evangelical perspective. I should add here that Rooney’s novels are appropriate for adults who freely wish to take them up. I would not recommend them for use in parish sponsored programs, as the story lines contain “R” material and language. That said, it does seem that these novels are widely read across all generations. Again, for parents/catechists/church ministers, Rooney’s writing provides helpful insight into the challenges of cross-generational dialogue.