When Jon Hassler, the Catholic novelist who was so unjustly tagged a “regional writer,” died in the spring, at the age of seventy-four, his passing did not trigger the barrage of appreciative pieces one might have expected in Catholic publications. Death, like life, can be unfair.
Though he transcended the regional label, Hassler was a distinctly Catholic novelist, and one of the best. He mined the same Midwestern milieu as did J.F. Powers, to whom he is often compared, with just a shade less brilliance. Unlike Powers, whose one attempt was not up to his standards, Hassler was able to capture the post–Vatican II Church with wit and wisdom.
In a piece I wrote about him in 2001, I, a fanatical Hassler fan, blamed poor Mr. Hassler himself for this apparent obscurity. “It’s actually Hassler’s own fault, damn it. He writes about peopleCatholic priestsand situationsthe predicaments in which Catholic priests find themselves because they are all too humanthat are alien to the purveyors of current literary fashion,” I claimed. “Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym, and J.F. Powers also wrote droll stories about men of the cloth. That was to be expected in Trollope’s time, when the clerical life with its attendant benefices was a respectable career track for young Victorians and thus a ready topic for satire. But the motif was already quaint by the 1950s, when Pym was writing her delicious tales of dotty High Anglican vicars and the spinsters smitten by them. And Powers’ darkly humorous fiction, whose subjects are almost always Catholic priests, is respected but generally misunderstood by the literary establishment. So it is not surprising that Hassler, writing about a generation after Powers, has simply been ignored by most of the critics.”
If Hassler read the piece, he must have been surprised, if not miffed. Ignored by the critics? It’s true that Hassler was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, and, like many novelists, he wrote several books that weren’t quite up to snuff. Indeed, his 1997 novel, The Dean’s List, was hailed by Joseph Bottum as showing, mostly, “how utterly worn-out the academic novel has become.”
Still, Hassler had enjoyed a substantial career and had hardly been ignored by the critics. I was simply late coming to the party. He had a large critical following, including the Washington Post’s Dennis Drabelle, who once proclaimed himself “hooked” on Hassler. Angela Lansbury had played his most beloved character, Agatha McGee, on television, and Hassler recently had been invited to the White House for a private lunch, not once but twiceby then first lady Hillary Clinton, who professed herself an ardent fan. It sounds like an odd pairing, the Catholic novelist and the pro-choice feminist, but who am I to doubt the senator’s veracity?
But Hassler was distinctly out of sync with the reigning literary clique. The critic James Wood once opined in the New Yorker that J.F. Powers’ fictional priests were unable to deal with sex. Anyone who believed that of Powers is not likely to find as much pleasure as many readers have in my favorite Hassler novel, Dear James (1993). The heroine is Agatha McGee, a starchy retired schoolteacher in Hassler’s fictional town of Staggerford, Minnesota. Agatha insists that in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has entered the “new Dark Age.” “I see we’re being holier than Rome again tonight,” a companion jokes because Agatha refuses to serve meat on Fridays. “Being holier than Rome is no fun since they made it so easy,” she replies. Hassler once admitted to a journalist that Agatha represented “that sort of inflexible, backward-looking side of me.”
For years, Agatha has been carrying on a correspondence with her unmet soul mate, James O’Hannon in Ireland, whose name she got from a letter to a conservative Catholic newspaper. When Agatha goes to Ireland to surprise James, it is she who receives the surpriseJames is a priest. I imagine a New Yorker writer would have James throw off the shackles of the Church and the two flee somewhere exotic for meaningful geriatric sex. Something more engaging happens in this highly recommended novel.
A priestly vocation is at the heart of what many consider Hassler’s best work, North of Hope (1990). Frank Healy “considered it something of a miracle that a girl so dazzling should come to live in a town so dull," when Libby Girard shows up in his small Midwestern town. As he watches Libby, a voice says: She’s the one. Frank has been told (lied to, to be more blunt) that his dying mother wanted him to become a priest. He does, yet Libby, damaged and desperate, shows up later in life. Again, the outcome of the story is not what any other contemporary writer would do with this basic setup. It’s a wonderful bookbut don’t expect wild sex featuring Frank and Libby.
What Powers did for the Church before the Second Vatican Council, Hassler (a longtime professor at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota) did for the Church after that watershed eventwith just as much trenchant humor. Agatha and James may be upholders of tradition, but Hassler’s Sister Juba isn’t. She has that giddiness that characterizes too much of the contemporary Church, captured in her telling a confirmation class that God’s creation of the world is “God laying an egg.” Agatha has a gimlet-eyed assessment of Juba’s jolly hockey-sticks attitude: “Though her innocence made her dangerous, she meant well.” The jazz-loving, aggressively informal Bishop Richard (“Call me Dick”) Baker is another postconciliar gem.
Perhaps the final word on Hassler belongs to Amy Welborn, who noted his death on her Open Book blog, and who wrote the introduction to North of Hope, when the Loyola Press reissued it as a Loyola Classic: “Into this realitysometimes a very cold and ugly reality, because that is the way life can bewarmth creeps, slowly. All of the characters in North of Hope face crises, small and great. The real drama, slower, absorbing, and deep, lies in the process of these same characters emerging from the crises that have shaken them, and accepting that the past cannot be changed. You are where you are, and right now, another choice presents itself. You can drown in regret and self-loathing or you can reconnect with life, with hopewith God.”
Charlotte Hays is a Washington writer and editor of In Character magazine.
"Hope on Ice" by Charlotte Hays
"The End of the Academic Novel" by Joseph Bottum (subscription required)
North of Hope by Jon Hassler
Introduction to North of Hope by Amy Welborn