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Book Review

Night at the Fiestas: Stories
Kirstin Valdez Quade
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead: Stories
Chanelle Benz
Ecco: HarperCollins, 2017

The Whole Beautiful World: Stories
Melissa Kuipers
Brindle & Glass, 2017


HOW DO YOU IMAGINE GOD? I ask my students, and they say, as a father, a loving one. I ask them what, exactly, they picture when they imagine God, and no one describes a father, certainly not their own dads. Instead, they picture a bright cloud, or light. Light is a recurring motif, with slight variations, like the sun through trees or light on water.

I spent my summers on a lake, at my grandparents’ cottage, and I remember wind-shivered birch leaves silvering in the late afternoon sun. I tell my students that what they’re saying resonates with me. This is a literature class, though, and our aim is to read beyond our own experiences, to encounter different images of God, some foreign or dangerous or troubling: biblical.

“Anything else?” I ask.

“God is peace,” one student tells me. He’s been reading me, waiting to say this.

“What kind of peace?”

He squints. “Like when you walk in the woods.”

“But without mosquitoes or ticks, right?”

He sees my smile. “Edging a golf course, I guess.”

“Like the kind on a poster in a doctor’s waiting room?”

I tell him that the first story we will read together, Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” is set in just such a waiting room. “O’Connor doesn’t describe it,” I say, “but perhaps a picture of those golf-course woods graced the wall.” I am quick to point out that in this story, though Mrs. Turpin makes contact with mystery, she does not experience God as peace.

Instead, Mrs. Turpin gets a sword: a sharp tongue calling her a “wart hog from hell.” She stews on that all day, fighting off the growing sense that God is speaking to her through her accuser. She’s furious at God, and dares God to do it again. “Call me a hog again,” she says. “From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put the bottom rail on top.” And God does so, allowing Mrs. Turpin a glimpse into “the very heart of mystery.” She is allowed to see herself clearly. She is from hell, surely, herself and a hog both: a respectable southern lady blinded by her own bigotry, racism, and pride, yet called into Christ’s kingdom with “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” before her.

These freaks and lunatics are what Terry Eagleton, in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, calls the anawim. “The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth—the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. [And] Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative.” In contemporary fiction, they might be called fuck-ups, or people who have been fucked by others, by systems, or by circumstance. I long for stories that force me close to such characters, those deemed grotesque by polite society, especially stories that flip the tables of religious decorum and certainty, as Jesus did by pursuing not the righteous but sinners.

Having one’s tables flipped can be traumatizing, though, even rage-inducing. You might want to hit back, shed blood, or crucify someone (online, if not literally). Christian Wiman reminds us that to “walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult,” as for Mrs. Turpin, “because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.” O’Connor, for her part, made clear in her essays that she wanted to cause the comfortable reader discomfort. But did she go far enough?

I teach “Revelation” regularly and respect O’Connor’s fiction, but I have come to realize that her vision does have limits. Mrs. Turpin, by the end of the story, sees herself in a distant vision of Christ’s kingdom, but it’s an epiphany without a witness to hold her accountable. Maybe in the morning when the African Americans in her employ return to their jobs, it will all just seem a trick of the light, the whole revelation like the glow felt by a reader after a good story’s finale. The truth is that Mrs. Turpin has no one to force her to a new way of interacting with those she has, until this day, seen as beneath her. I imagine her still keeping a mannered distance, like O’Connor kept from James Baldwin. “Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia,” she wrote to her friend Maryat Lee in 1959.

“Revelation,” as a story, is a good one, but it is limited. Which is why I am introducing my students this year to three new writers: Kirstin Valdez Quade, Chanelle Benz, and Melissa Kuipers, each of whom punctures our vague imaginings of the divine by bringing us face to face with the anawim of our own age or ages past.

 

In “The Five Wounds,” in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s 2015 debut collection Night at the Fiestas, Amadeo Padilla is Jesus in an annual Holy Week ceremony held in his northern New Mexico town by the hermanos, a lay confraternity that emphasizes penitence and mortification. Amadeo is a lazy man who “could use a lesson in sacrifice,” though he takes seriously the role of Jesus—one traditionally given to a local reprobate. He hopes for personal redemption in fulfilling the role, wanting to “get up there in front of the whole town and do a performance so convincing he’ll transubstantiate right there on the cross into something real,” a man of standing, a local legend like Manuel García, and not just a drunken, deadbeat dad.

His desire to “think of higher things,” however, like how better to feel Christ’s pain, is continually thwarted by his daughter, Angel, who shows up pregnant and wanting to hang out with her father. Angel keeps demanding Amadeo’s attention, constantly talking to and about her baby and pointing out facts about pregnancy. She is comfortable with her changing body and wants to talk about the whole experience with her father—to share this with him—but Amadeo fears her. He wants to be a good dad, sure, but his fear of Angel, her body and baby, along with his desire to prove himself to the town, keeps him focused on what he sees as a holier endeavor—being the hermanos’ Jesus.

He lapses a few times, furnishing needed comic relief. But in an increasingly tense sequence, Amadeo takes Angel to see the inside of the morada, a gas-station-turned-sanctuary forbidden to women. Manuel García, the morada’s most famous Jesus, sees this transgression and threatens to tell the hermanos. But to keep Manuel from tattling, Angel lets the old man touch her pregnant belly with his scarred hands. She does this so Manuel will not ruin her father’s “Jesus day,” sacrificing herself, her body, for her father. Amadeo recognizes the sacrifice, but he wishes “he didn’t owe her. He can pay her back,” he thinks, “but only if he can blot her out,” which Valdez Quade, in a powerful finale, does not allow him to do.

In the final scene, Angel becomes Amadeo’s sole focus while the hermanos crucify him. In the moment before the pain of the nails hits, he experiences his revelation. Valdez Quade, in poetically compressed prose, orchestrates an epiphany, biblical in force, which hammers home a searing truth: it is Angel’s pain that is holy, not Amadeo’s, and though everyone looks to him as Jesus, he is the sole witness to Angel’s passion, pangs that might be preterm labor. Only he sees that she needs him in that moment, but he cannot go to her because he has given himself to the crowd, sacrificing his daughter and her child for his own redemption. That painful revelation, more than the nails, is what tortures Amadeo as he hangs on that cross, crying out.

 

The last story in Chanelle Benz’s 2017 collection, The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead, also indicts religious zeal, but with a knife-twist ending that shows the power of forgiveness. In “That We May Be All One Sheepefolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum,” a beautifully accented seventeenth-century voice transports us to Cromwell’s England, where the narrator is boiling blood off his jerkin. Jerome is a bookseller in London after the fire at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and after “the city met with plague.” Seeing “blood creased between [his] fingers, dried to the hilt of [his] knife,” we realize that Jerome has murdered someone, deepening the gulf he feels between himself and God.

The story then shifts to Jerome as a novice in Marston Abbey before Cromwell’s clearances. Jerome is asking his abbot about his parents. An orphan, he is ashamed of his past, yet wants to know it. Sensing his shame, the abbot tells him a bit about his mother. When Jerome asks if she was a “fallen woman,” the abbot says, “We are all fallen from grace, Jerome. All of us banished from the Garden. Judge not those in need of thy compassion.” This proves heady advice for the boy, who next day meets the king’s royal commissioner, John Haskewell, who wants his help in investigating and deposing the abbot.

Benz masterfully uses setting to foreshadow ironies. For instance, when we first see the abbot, he is “sitting in a deep study under the chancel where sinners were painted falling into Hell.” We find out later that the abbot has committed sins that should consign him to hell, according to church teaching, sins that, to Haskewell, justify his deposition. The story, though, shows the abbot redeemed in his bastard son’s eyes, and in God’s eyes too: God who is not the judge throwing sinners into hell, as pictured in the chancel. The judge assigning people to hell is Haskewell.

When we first see Haskewell, Jerome notes behind him “a tapestry of our Savior sitting on a Rainbow, His woundful eyes gilt with the grace of sacrifice.” Christ here contrasts with Haskewell, whose “frivolous aspect” in a later scene “began to recede” as he seeks to condemn the abbot, and his “thieving eyes lit gravely upon” Jerome. While Christ’s eyes are “woundful,” Haskewell’s are “thieving,” and Haskewell is a thief, an accuser who strips Jerome of his entire world. A world, in Jerome’s words, that taught him “to love God; a love which wast then as necessary and natural as breath.” When Haskewell asks what he learns in a place like this, Jerome replies that he learns to “love and be loved by God. To love all men through God. To love as God loves.”

The world of the abbey ends, though, with the abbot’s gruesome execution. “So cumbrous was mine horror,” Jerome tells us, “upon the gore that wast” the abbot’s face. “It was then that God left me.” He goes first to Oxford, then to London. Late in life, we understand that he has, after a lifetime apart from God, managed (he thinks) to avenge the abbot’s death. The story, though, is not a simple revenge tale, satisfying as that would be. Instead, Benz shifts the focus back to the Christ of Marston Abbey—the savior, not the judge—to whom Jerome finally prays. Thus, out of a hell of seventeenth-century despair, Benz sounds one of the most beautiful notes of hope that I have heard in recent fiction.

 

Hell, of course, takes different shapes in different stories. In “Happy All the Time,” from Melissa Kuipers’s 2017 debut The Whole Beautiful World, hell for Marcus Hannigan seems to be lunchtime. Marcus is in seventh grade, his mom newly married to Frank, a marathon-running nurse, and Frank is on mission to help Marcus lose weight. By high school, Marcus has managed to slim down to a size Frank deems acceptable, but he has been more traumatized by Frank, and by his parents’ separation, than he lets on. We glimpse this when a girl invites him to play guitar with her youth group. “Playing with the band,” we’re told, “felt the way dinners at home should feel.”

The youth group draws Marcus into their evangelical circle, where he begins to read the Bible and explore his growing spirituality, “sitting in silence and listening to the thoughts in his head, trying to pull out the ones that were from God and the ones that might be from Satan.” Eventually he breaks up with his girlfriend to “focus on his faith,” and as the story progresses, we witness his need to stay spiritually lean, to cut away the carnal fat in his life. At college, where he shortens his name to Mark, he starts a Bible study that grows rapidly from forty to sixty-eight people. He preaches about how badly people need the word of God “in a world of twisted truth and false love.”

Feeling that the group is too complacent, Mark insists they meet twice a week, which slims their numbers a bit. He keeps adding meetings until the group is “down to a devoted thirty,” forcing a stricter and stricter spiritual diet until the group dwindles to seventeen “who kept up the bi-weekly fasts and were willing to answer their phones for random two a.m. prayer walks around campus as the Spirit led, when Mark couldn’t sleep.”

Kuipers’s irony is subtle but pointed, suggesting that though Mark thinks he is led by the Spirit, the Spirit seems only to suggest what Mark wants, and not, for instance, what Mark’s mentor Stan advises. In a surprising coffee-shop scene, in which Stan asks Mark to seek some balance, Mark tells Stan to “Get behind me, Satan,” and to stop trying to tempt him “off the narrow path God has set before” him. This path gets even narrower until a student reporter publishes an investigative report, calling the group a cult, resulting in a confrontation between Mark and the dean of students. Yet none of this dissuades Mark, who remains blindingly certain that he is doing God’s work.

In a final scene as subtle and moving as anything by Alice Munro, Kuipers gives us a glimpse of Mark as a boy again, trying to ignore his stepdad: a boy who has grown up learning to shut out voices telling him what to do. In doing so, however, he has shut out the voice of God, or at least the voices of wisdom in his life, mistaking them for the devil. Mark, in the end, doesn’t realize that he has locked himself in the evangelical echo chamber of his own mind, where he mistakes the reverberations of his guitar and the sound of his own voice for the word of God.

 

Chanelle Benz, in another flawlessly crafted period piece, ruptures a different kind of Christian echo chamber: the Deep South of the nineteenth century. (I’ll discuss two of her stories here to show the remarkable range of her collection, and to show specific ways in which her work pushes beyond O’Connor’s.) In “The Peculiar Narrative of the Remarkable Particulars in the life of Orrinda Thomas,” we learn of a poetry-inspired uprising at a Louisiana plantation in 1836. Orrinda Thomas, a poet who believes herself to be a freewoman—an ex-slave—tells us in an epistolary account that she is to deliver a performance of “Nature poems: those limited, early works of lyrical mimickings and indulgent odes to America’s landscapes. Verse which asks no questions, has no economy, and is but a blundered attempt at metaphysical complexity.”

Unbeknownst to her host, Orrinda has given three guns to the slaves who work the plantation. “I don’t care what they do with [the guns],” she writes, reflecting on the brutality of the slaves’ lives, brutality she knows firsthand. “I don’t care if they shoot us all. Such is the daily horror of their existence, which so passively we witness, that they should make our world a hell and then we will know what God is.”

James Parker wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 that “the space left by the destroyed ego,” the life gone to hell, “was holy” for Flannery O’Connor “because it belonged to God.” God, after all, creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. Yet, as I have said, in “Revelation,” O’Connor does not reduce Mrs. Turpin to nothing. Benz, though, through Orrinda Thomas, blasts the privileged world of the plantation to nothing. Orrinda is willing to damn that world to hell, in fact, along with her safe place in it, so that “we will know what God is.”

Benz’s vision in this story is more shocking than O’Connor’s, and more vital to our current moment. Benz empowers the slaves in her story, having Orrinda act for and with her fellows by inciting a riot with an inflammatory poem—not one of the vague nature poems she had promised to recite, but one that pierces the “fog of God” and southern manners with the insistence that slaves’ lives matter:

Lord, You alone have chosen me, yet
This ornate darkness keeps me from sleep
Hearing them hounds loose in the night
Chasing the slave with the broken jaw
Who was salted in the sun.
You will know him by his sin
Tell the Lord, he is coming,
Tell his son he is dead and gone
Throw his boy three times over him
Gather stones to hold down his grave
Because it has begun to rain

The poet is to tell the Lord that a murdered black man is coming, coming back to life, though stones are piled “to hold down his grave.” But those stones won’t hold him, Orrinda tells the gathered crowd of plantation owners, “Because it has begun to rain.” A resurrection image. An apocalyptic prophecy that costs Orrinda her life, or so the story’s frame implies.

If you are wondering when in this country will we glimpse “what God is,” look to African Americans like Orrinda Thomas who sacrifice everything to see their dead raised and remembered and their people living free.

 

I do not think that O’Connor could have imagined a story like Benz’s. Which is why I need to teach more than O’Connor. I need new stories, sharp with irony, to pierce my own fog and passivity. My students need new stories, too: fresh, startling insight into what it means to be human—in modern-day New Mexico and seventeenth-century England, in their own evangelical worlds and in nineteenth-century Louisiana. Every year I try to take them as far afield as I can—though I don’t often feel I’ve fully succeeded.

In reading these writers’ debut collections, I have been entertained and shocked, offended and brought to tears, overturned and uplifted. I have come to recognize my own misguided religious zeal in Valdez Quade’s Amadeo and Kuipers’s Mark. I have learned the love of Christ from a murdered seventeenth-century abbot and the power of forgiveness from his bastard son. I have had to face, in a character like Benz’s Crawford (Orrinda Thomas’s former owner), the privilege that would allow me to remain silent while my black neighbors fight like Orrinda Thomas to convince us that their lives matter.

Contemporary fiction can do many things, not least of which is remind us that we are all evolving creatures, in every way creatures of this earth, determined by DNA and the dust we call home and by a billion other things that we, like the mythic Adam, are only beginning to see and name—our own mystery and manners. These things shape and bind us in bodies from which we cannot escape. Yet God’s desire of old was to become one of us in order truly to be with us, and in being with us as Christ, to draw us deeper into the divine life, unfathomable as that mystery is. Kirstin Valdez Quade, Chanelle Benz, and Melissa Kuipers dare to fathom that mystery by bringing us face to face with those we might, if left to our own devices, choose to avoid, including ourselves.


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