Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Devour This Book

Some blogs have patron saints. I used to be active on such a blog. For this new blog, all of four days old, I propose a patron book. I am now reading this book for the second time, greedily, the way I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (three times) or Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean (five). Do you have books like this, that somehow answer deep wishes of your heart? How do you explain your devotion to such a book? The word is not too strong.

This blog’s patron book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. I identify with this book and its four main subjects—Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy—the way I used to identify with Earl Battey, Camilo Pascual, Zoilo Versailles, and Jim “Mudcat” Grant in the days before I abandoned the baseball team of my childhood home (the Twins) for that of my adult zip code (the Bosox).

It is presumptuous of me to identify with these four great Catholic writers: Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy. Something about not worthy to untie the sandals comes to mind. Yet as described—brilliantly by Elie—in this quadri-biography, each of them is deeply flawed in a way that I can identify with. Just today I was reading one of Merton’s letters to Day in which he referred to himself as a “phony,” and I felt a sudden kinship. There are few things that frighten me more in myself than phoniness, including every time I start another post here.

Their being flawed makes it OK for me to call them sisters and brothers. Their engagement with life as Catholic writers makes me revere them as mothers and fathers. For whatever reason, as I near the age of sixty, it has become increasingly clear to me that I have a (minor) gift and therefore (major) responsibility: relating to my world and making judgments about it as a Catholic writer. I am sure every (minor, in my case) Catholic blogger feels something like this.

In fact, I am very slowly working up a Catholic-themed book that is way too premature to detail here, and one of the reasons I find Norman Maclean so moving is that he wrote his two great books, his only non-academic books, past the age of seventy. This fact seems to give me a ten-year running head start. (Maclean’s other masterpiece is A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.)

Each of these writers engaged in the world as writers, feeling out reality, experimenting with their vision of it. Day’s pacifism got her in all sorts of jams: How, in retrospect, could she have supported Castro’s bloody revolution in Cuba? Merton may have felt himself a phony but to me he appears a cat on a hot tin roof, never comfortable in his shoes, never able to embrace the Trappist vow of stability, and finally going off the rails by forsaking his vow of celibacy and then flying off in search of the Wisdom of the East, where he met his end stepping out of a shower and grabbing an electric appliance.

O’Connor has been lionized in the past year by elements within CL, who mounted a tribute to her at Rimini last summer, who featured her recently in Traces. Yet the plain fact emerges from Elie’s book that this Southern writer was racist. Elie makes no bones about this (see page 328, first paragraph), and good for him. Percy? Physically fragile from tuberculosis in his youth, genetically scarred by a history of family suicides, and haunted by the hound of depression, Percy stumbled to the finish line with his first novel, The Moviegoer, at age 45. His entire writing career, as seen by Elie, was the truest kind of search, in which the ultimate finish line is never ever seen.

I hold out my hand to these four writers and ask for a leg up. None of them is yet a saint, although there are those who want Day beatified. Therefore, I cannot make any of them a patron saint. This book will have to do. If you haven’t read it, get it, devour it, read it again. That’s what I’m doing now, that and writing about it.


  1. yes, as anyone can see by reading her letters, O'Connor is a racist (in the sense of being prejudiced, not in the sense of abusing power however). For me the great thing about O'Connor is that she is aware of her racism and doesn't deny it, but then she also doesn't endlessly try to justify herself. She confesses an ontology greater than her feelings when it comes to race, an ontology rooted in Jesus Christ and his Church.

    As a side note, you should know that her story, "The Artificial Nigger" was featured in Rimini but not at the exhibit in New York. This was a prudential decision - and though I was not a part of it, I don't dispute... because Americans have a ways to go before appreciating the nuances of this work and of O'Connor's life. I will say this: the story demonstrates the victory of reality over racist feelings and ideology.

  2. Fred,

    Thanks for your comment. I do not condemn O'Connor's racism anymore than Day's pacifism or Merton's "phoneyness." Her racism brings her closer to me in fact, since I am so many ways a mess!

  3. So glad someone else loves this book as much as I. It's one I try to recommend to people with little success. I will keep your review handy to assist me in my efforts.


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