Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Press, 2011)
Faith by Jennifer Haigh (Harper, 2011)
The Color of Night by Madison Smartt Bell (Vintage, 2011)
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011)
THE CHRISTIAN NOVELIST,” Flannery O’Connor writes, “is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as a sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future.” The term “Christian novelist,” particularly in today’s publishing marketplace, is fraught with controversial implications, and is a label most literary writers eschew, even if they identify as Christians in other contexts. O’Connor herself grew uncomfortable with the phrase; later in Mystery and Manners she writes, “the word Christian is no longer reliable. It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart. And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.”
But sin, the heart turned to coal, is fiction’s engine. The fall, the fear of judgment, and the search for redemption—the foundational truths of more than one faith—can be mapped directly onto Freytag’s triangle, for all stories, regardless of whether or not the characters involved look toward the sky in search of God, depend upon something going wrong—a missed turn, an offending word, a crime committed. Sin, however, is far more than a missed turn; sin is an offense against a transcendent order, a moral code, a cultural norm. Thus the consequences of sin—the wages of sin, as the Apostle Paul termed it in Romans—extend beyond the life of the sinner, affecting not only his own eternal future, but also the future of the human race.
Four recent novels explore the origins and consequences of sin. Though the stories traverse a range of historical epochs and locations, the sins at the center of each are resoundingly contemporary, from racial and gender discrimination to sexual abuse to modern warfare. The works are further unified by the common impulse to look beyond the vaporous lives of their characters in order to examine how sin reverberates into the larger structures of culture, history, and even faith itself.
Geraldine Brooks’s Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan minister and granddaughter of the founder of the English colony on Martha’s Vineyard, and Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665 (and, as the author notes in the afterword, the last Wampanoag Indian to graduate from Harvard until 2011). Caleb and Bethia travel on parallel tracks throughout the novel: the resistance Caleb faces from his own people when he decides to come under the tutelage of Bethia’s father, and the later prejudices he faces while a student at Harvard, mirror Bethia’s own struggle to find her place as a woman in a world dominated by powerful and frequently self-righteous men. Caleb’s quick wit and speedy mastery of not only English but also Greek, Latin, and Hebrew echo Bethia’s exceptional faculty with the same languages (as well as with Caleb’s native Wampanoag), all of which she learned not by formal study—“You risk addling your brain by thinking on scholarly matters that need not concern you,” her father says—but by eavesdropping on her older brother’s lessons.
But while Caleb is drawn to Christianity because it promises education, which promises power, in both the white man’s world and among his own people, Bethia groans beneath the burdens of the faith. Her father brandishes biblical language like a weapon: when twelve-year-old Bethia confesses her misgivings about her future as a wife and mother, her father says, “Be content, I beg you. If you must read something, read your Bible. I commend to you especially Proverbs 31: verses 10 to 31.” Bethia, ever precocious, recites the verses back to her father in Hebrew, further provoking his ire. She is denied a voice in her own fortunes and encouraged by her mother to use her “quick mind” for God’s glory, and her desires are driven underground, only to resurface later in mutated form. After witnessing a tribal healing ceremony, Bethia drinks from a gourd containing a “greenish brew…the poisonous path to visionary power.” Bethia ascribes the hallucination it causes to Satan, and when her mother dies during childbirth, Bethia says, as plainly as she can, “I killed my mother.”
Caleb’s Crossing is a serious historical novel, and Brooks—whose novel March won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006—is an expert channeler of period detail. The reader is immersed into Bethia’s voice, and Brooks expresses her heroine’s inner thoughts by deftly braiding archaic terms and phrases into a contemporary prose rhythm. And yet, contemporary readers are invited to view Bethia’s problems not through the eyes of a seventeenth-century Puritan but through their own. Bethia’s confession that she killed her mother is not to be taken seriously; in fact, she sounds a little like Abigail Williams in The Crucible accusing everyone in sight of witchcraft. Of course the brew had nothing to do with her mother’s death. Instead, readers understand that Bethia is a desperate young woman called to sacrifice her own wants for those imposed by her father and brother. It’s no wonder she sneaks a taste from the forbidden gourd.
The great sin at the heart of Caleb’s Crossing isn’t Bethia’s dabbling in Indian magic, but rather Puritan patriarchalism. When Bethia refuses to bend to her brother’s will and marry a man she hasn’t seen in years and doesn’t love, and tells him so, in private, the master of the Latin school reminds her that the penalties against “uttering an oath to God” include “driving an awl through the offending tongue.” Later, when Bethia confesses to the same master her desire to take a position as a servant at the college because she might hear the morning lessons through the buttery hatch, she’s told once again, “These lessons are not fashioned for the unfurnished mind of the fairer sex.” Contemporary readers can’t help guffawing at the narrow-mindedness of the early colonists, and to see in their stern resolve the hubris that would lead to another three centuries of sexism and oppression of women.
In her remarkable essay “Puritans and Prigs,” Marilynne Robinson argues against the ways in which the Puritans have been uniquely and unfairly linked with sexual anxiety and the denigration of women. Wedded to a morality that not merely encouraged but dictated justice for the poor and abhorred depictions of violence against women (not to mention violence against women itself), the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritanism explicated by Robinson more closely resembles Marxism than today’s religious conservatism. For all of Caleb’s Crossing’s finely crafted detail and authentic atmosphere, Brooks misses the opportunity to show a more complex side of Puritanism; Brooks seems so intent on portraying Caleb and Bethia as intellectually superior that her other characters never quite buck the historical stereotypes with which they have been aligned. Toward the end of the novel Bethia comes to Caleb for advice in discerning which man she should marry: the son of a wealthy farmer from her native island or a young Harvard tutor. Only Caleb, greater than all other men in both body and mind, is forthright enough to ask the question anathema to everyone else in the novel: “Which man quickens your blood?” Bethia’s response is telling, for it reveals her own sexual anxiety and points to Caleb’s Crossing’s larger inhibitions about crossing into murkier territory:
There are some questions that can be answered and some that cannot. And some questions that should never be asked, even of one’s self.
The questions of sexual desire that Bethia cannot allow herself to ask, Jennifer Haigh hauls kicking and screaming into the light in Faith, her fourth novel. Like Caleb’s Crossing, Faith is set on the rough-hewn Massachusetts shoreline, but Haigh’s Boston is contemporary rather than colonial, and her believers aren’t English Puritan but Irish Catholic—bare-knuckled, working class, and as seemingly indigenous to the landscape as the Wampanoag Indians. Father Arthur Breen, a long-serving priest, finds himself suddenly and inexplicably drawn into the flurry of sexual abuse scandals sweeping through the Boston archdiocese like an icy Nor’easter. Accused of molesting young Aidan Conlon, the grandson of the rectory’s housekeeper, Art is stripped of his parish (on Good Friday no less), and exiled to a Spartan apartment complex to await the case’s resolution.
Faith is narrated by Art’s half-sister, Sheila McGann, a loner schoolteacher haunted by some of the same family demons as her brother—her mother’s overzealous faith and her father’s rampant alcoholism that in later years plunges him into dementia. Sheila is a misfit in a family of misfits, a motley assortment of interweaving connections and combative alliances. Though Sheila and Art have different fathers, they both “favor their mother,” while Mike, Sheila’s full-blooded sibling, “so resembles Dad that he seems to have no other parent.” Family loyalty is never a settled question, for most of the characters remain uncertain about who counts, and who does not, as family. Sheila herself says, “My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”
When the charges against his brother appear in the newspaper, Mike McGann, a street tough turned cop turned real-estate agent, can’t help falling back on the genetic separation between himself and Art, taking comfort in the fact that Art is his half-brother and giving thanks for their different last names. Yet Mike soon goes searching for the little boy his brother allegedly harmed, a journey that brings him dangerously close to the boy’s mother, Kath Conlon—a recovering meth addict (picture Blake Lively in Ben Affleck’s The Town) who reminds Mike of his own tumultuous youth and the girl he used to love. Mike sifts through the Conlon’s garbage in search of the truth about his brother’s desires, only to discover that his own are not so different. One would expect the accusations against his brother to sunder Mike’s faith once and for all. Ironically, after years of marriage to a Midwestern Lutheran and a settled upper-middle-class life, Mike finds his Catholicism more important than ever.
Haigh paints a compelling, interlocking portrait of both the immediate and long-term repercussions of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. The constant flood of accusations and revelations lead many to assume the worst about Father Art and his colleagues simply because they’re priests; they, in essence, must accept the wages of sin on behalf of their fellow clerics. But Haigh doesn’t shy away from thornier questions about the connections between vitiated sexual desire and the order and hierarchies that govern the priests’ lives. Nor does she forget that the priests themselves were once children in the church and, in some cases, number among its victims. No one is innocent, but there are definitely victims. There are victims in excelsis.
The worst casualty in Faith, however, is not Aidan Conlon, nor Father Breen, but rather Aidan’s mother, Kath. Abandoned by her son’s father, and long accustomed to trading sex for drugs, she becomes the focus for the misplaced sexual energies of more than one man in Sheila’s family. Kath’s greatest mistake—a mistake which proves to be the catalyst for the novel itself—is that she hopes the men who claim to be good, who claim to desire not just sex but family, love, a trusting relationship, might turn out to be true to their word.
If Kath Conlon were to meet Mae, the narrator of Madison Smartt Bell’s haunting seventeenth novel, The Color of Night, it’s a good bet the two women would be friends, for both have traveled hard roads. But while Kath’s aberrant youth has given her a child and returned her to the city of her birth, offering hope for a fresh start, Mae’s journey has alienated her from everyone she’s ever known and has landed her on the shores of the lake of fire. The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in Las Vegas, where Mae works as a blackjack dealer and lives in a trailer park that backs up to the open desert. Fixated on the television coverage of the catastrophe—“a plane biting into the side of a building, its teeth on its underside where the mouth of a shark is…shots of living mortals on the street, wailing, raking the flesh from the bones of their faces”—Mae recognizes a face from her past among the images of the bloody, prostrate masses.
That face belongs to Laurel, her ex-lover and fellow member of the “People,” a thinly veiled fictionalization of the Manson Family. Laurel’s frozen image on television, which Mae videotapes so she can replay it again and again, prompts a flood of memories: of her sexually abusive brother, her fling with a famous musician, her steady inculcation into the famous cult. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that Mae and Laurel, brainwashed by the People’s godlike leader, committed a shocking murder—another veiled fictionalization, this time of the Tate murders—and have spent the last three decades living under assumed names. Laurel has hidden in plain sight, raising a daughter while working in the development office of a wealthy prep school in New York City; Mae, on the other hand, has drifted, first to her brother’s house in southern Ohio before finding her way back west. Mae cannot stay invisible forever; temptation gets the best of her and she calls Laurel, who alerts the FBI to Mae’s whereabouts, leading to a string of disastrous encounters from which neither will ever recover.
The Color of Night is a devastatingly beautiful novel, analogous, perhaps, to the beauty of a shattered church window: the shards jagged and glowing, the empty spaces between an empty void. Such beauty—along with the novel’s migrations between the celebrities and excesses of California and the forsaken Nevada desert, its lyrically violent language and short, almost truncated chapters—strongly echoes Joan Didion’s 1970 tour de force, Play It As It Lays. Mae’s name itself almost reads like a shortened version of Didion’s Maria, as if the two women—and the two stories—are cousins, joined in their embrace of darkness and evil. Bell and Didion both see their projects in Dantean terms; both novels work to probe the depths of human sin all the way to its most corrupt and atramentous bottom.
Yet Mae and Maria are animated by different forces. While Didion positions the sexual lasciviousness of the 1960s as the consequence of a culture that has taught itself to see the human body as a commodity, Bell locates human depravity in sex itself. If meaningless sex is a symptom of nihilism in Didion, abusive sex is nihilism’s cause in Bell. The abuse Mae suffers at the hands of her brother, from the time she’s just eleven years old until she runs away when she’s sixteen, leads to her “balling for bread” across the American West, which leads to her joining the People, which leads to brainwashing and bacchanalian orgies more frightening than erotic, which leads, ultimately and awfully, to murder. Mae calls herself “a minor demon posted…to a fifth-rate hell,” but it’s important to remember that her demonism is the result of the sins inflicted upon her; she is sin’s product, not its cause. Mae suggests this passivity when she says, “What I mean to say is that no story matters. Not even the tales we have told of the gods. In two billion years the sun will have burnt this world into cinders. What I mean to say is there’s nothing but this. This. Nothing. This.” Bell follows Mae’s nihilism to its spectacular conclusion, never letting the reader pause to breathe, never once tempted to offer Mae a chance at rebirth or even ordinary happiness. He leaves Mae peering at Laurel through the scope of her rifle in New York, in the shadow of the fallen towers, and leaves the reader to decide if any possibility of redemption remains among so much calamity.
Throughout The Color of Night, Mae roams the desert (and later, the city) armed with a long-range sniper’s rifle—an instrument of death so coldly precise it hardly makes a noise as it fires. The rifle, and the deadly skill of the person firing it, joins The Color of Night with the last novel considered in this review, Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn. Indeed, if Kath Conlon in Faith and Mae in The Color of Night are linked by the pain they’ve suffered, Mae and Jozef Vinich are linked by the pain they dispense.
Jozef, like the protagonists of the other three novels, has been defined by an early, catastrophic loss: his mother was hit by a train in a Colorado mining camp when Jozef was just three months old. After the accident, Jozef moves with his father, Ondrej, back to his parents’ native Slovakia. Ondrej becomes a shepherd in the Carpathian Mountains, a remote and rugged land, where Ondrej speaks to his son only in English, reads from Walden and Moby-Dick, and most importantly teaches him how to hunt. The pair are soon joined by a cousin, Zlee, whom Jozef takes to like a brother, and the three men settle into a life of shepherding and hunting, the clouds of World War I all the while gathering on the horizon.
When Jozef and Zlee join the army, the officers quickly recognize the boys’ talents and assign them to a special sharpshooting unit. Together, Jozef and Zlee make an efficient killing machine, sniping targets from more than five hundred yards away—a job Jozef views with a self-righteous detachment:
I never wondered who those men might be, if they were in love with anyone or if they had families. They were the enemy, and they would stand and fight and try to kill as many men as I might pass in the night to or from the trenches that separated us not just in battle but—we were told—by the will of God, and so I killed as I had been instructed and believed that death and death alone would save me.
But as the war wages on, Jozef begins to doubt the worth of his actions. He wonders if he’s been “abandoned by the emperor’s God for some sin long forgotten or even unknown to those of us sent to atone for it.” The mission costs Zlee his life, the Austro-Hungarian soldiers are forced to retreat, and in a final hellish battle, Jozef runs out of ammunition, out of faith, and out of courage to fight.
As a prisoner of the Italian army, Jozef is taken by train and boat to a prison in Sardinia. As his body heals and his strength returns, Jozef grows sleepless, haunted by the men he’s killed and the men he allowed to die, including Zlee: “the sights and smells of war were nowhere but in my memory, and yet from that more vivid and persistent life I began to see the faces of the men whom I’d held in the crosshairs of my sight before I fired on them.” In his darkest hour, on the verge of going mad from guilt, Jozef meets an old Corsican prisoner named Banquo—“in the jail for so long he seemed a ghost himself”—who slowly helps Jozef retreat from the brink of despair. When Jozef confesses that he believes he’s destined to a life of perpetual damnation, Banquo offers a response that reverberates across not only The Sojourn, but all four of the novels considered in this review:
“Ghosts are not the dead. They are our fear of death. Tell yourself, Jozef, not to be afraid.”
After a time, I asked, “What is left to be afraid of?”
And he said, “The possibility that a life itself may prove to be the most worthy struggle. Not the whole sweeping vale of tears that Rome and her priests want us to sacrifice ourselves to daily so that she lives in splendor, but one single moment in which we die so that someone else lives. That’s it, and it is fearful because it cannot be seen, planned, or even known. It is simply lived. If there be purpose, it happens of a moment within us, and lasts a lifetime without us, like water opening and closing in a wake.”
The characters at the center of each novel—Bethia Mayfield and Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, Sheila McGann and Father Breen, Mae and Laurel, Jozef and Ondrej Vinich—all wrestle with their ghosts. Some buckle beneath the burden, but others find the strength to carry on. Jozef’s sojourn doesn’t lead him to a spiritual awakening or to an explicit proclamation of belief, but for Krivak, a former Jesuit, faith—hope for the future, the conversion of tragedy into meaning—lurks throughout The Sojourn’s lush and lyrical prose. Even after enduring the horrors of war, and imprisoned on a Patmos-like island, Jozef discovers that the wages of sin might be repaid on earth not by dying but by living. The persistence of life is itself a kind of redemption, a divine gift that Jozef, like Bethia Mayfield and Sheila McGann—the men and women who survive to tell their tales—learn, one way or another, to embrace.
—Reviewed by David McGlynn
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.