Red, White, Blue, and Catholic
by stephen p. white
liguori, 101 pages, $12.99
In this primer on Catholic citizenship, the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Stephen White reminds us that faithful citizenship is about love—“love for the people and institutions to which we are bound by birth and by choice. This is not a blind love, which ignores failings and sins, but a love that wills and strives for the best for ourselves and our country.”
Three virtues of this work stand out. First, it is written for a popular audience without being simplistic. Second, in an age of vitriol, it strikes an irenic tone and appeals to people of good will. Third, it explicates core principles of Catholic social teaching and eschews narrow, sectarian political causes. Avoiding pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric—a constant temptation for Catholics—White reveals how our state-versus-the-individual political discourse routinely ignores the space in which most of life actually occurs and calls for strengthening mediating civil institutions such as families, churches, and unions.
—Logan Paul Gage is assistant professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays
by joseph epstein
axios, 608 pages, $24
Joseph Epstein has been atop the list of the best American essayists for many years. In the past, his longer essays were written (under the pseudonym Aristides) primarily for the journal he edited, The American Scholar. Many of these are collected in Narcissus Leaves the Pool (1999), A Line Out for a Walk (1992), and Once More Around the Block (1987). Epstein’s essays now appear often in the Weekly Standard in a section called “Casual.” (Epstein’s contributions, along with the work of Andrew Ferguson, make a subscription to that magazine mandatory.) These shorter essays of little more than eight hundred words form almost the entirety of this thoroughly satisfying volume.
Epstein absorbs and delights the reader no matter how much room he has to work with. These essays feature his familiar wit (“The Beats’ literary legacy is just below negligible, their politics chiefly about druggery and buggery”) and adroitness with language (“Solipsistic Bores suffer—or, more likely, they enjoy—the Copernican Complex: They believe that the solar system rotates around them. Lucky fellows, self-love in them never goes unrequited”).
Also appealing is Epstein’s assertion of judgment in such matters as dress (“The baseball cap marks a steep decline in elegant male attire” and “The notion of having shined shoes speaks to holding up standards, even if in a very minor way”). Epstein is at his best and most reliable as a moralist. He ably discerns in the decline of the handshake (“I am a straight handshake man, and a handshake man I wish to remain”) in sports a sign of greater trouble:
Now we have the touchdown dance, the sack dance, the Tarzan-of-the-apes scream after the slam dunk, the triple fist pump and knee raise after winning a mere point in tennis. They go too far, all of them. A good winner has felt, and thereby understands, the funk of defeat; he knows that the best man doesn’t always win; and so he is therefore generous in victory. Gracious winning was part of what used to be called sportsmanship.
Epstein gives us a sterling apothegm: “Style in prose is intelligence perfectly formulated.” With this book, Epstein displays style in abundance.
—Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey.
Maze of Blood
by marly youmans
mercer university, 224 pages, $24
Marly Youmans’s recent novel Maze of Blood reads like a surreal poem. The mundane aspects of the small Texas town of Cross Plains beat like a hammer against the dreams of the protagonist, a writer of fantasy named Conall Weaver, who is based on Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. With a mythical, infernal landscape dotted by coyotes and wildflowers as well as Egyptian gods and Mongolian conquerors, the novel moves in and out of reality with purposeful jerks.
Like all good scandals, the story is both inviting and off-putting. In the first forty pages, Weaver places a gun in his mouth and fires. However, the remainder of the story does not merely categorize his past. Weaver’s suicide sets the reader in the center of a labyrinth in which one must follow his previous paths to discover how he ended where he did. Youmans invites readers to imagine the maze of stories that comprise our lives and the Spirit of Story behind the maze.
—Jessica Hooten Wilson is assistant professor of English at John Brown University.
But What If We’re Wrong?
by chuck klosterman
blue rider, 288 pages, $26
Chuck Klosterman, one of the hip kids of American literature, is an unlikely source for reactionary musing. His latest book, however, offers some questions that will be familiar to any reader of Nicolás Gómez-Dávila. How will we be seen by people living centuries from now? What practices that we casually accept will they regard with horror? What certitudes on which we rely will they hold up for ridicule? Unlike those who love to condemn others for being on the “wrong side” of history, Klosterman knows that the future is no slave to contemporary prejudice.
The boldest chapter lays out “the case against freedom.” Klosterman begins by asking Jay Wexler, a constitutional lawyer at Boston University, whether the Constitution might not be so perfect after all. Wexler agrees, conventionally enough. (Criticizing the Constitution is an old American tradition.) And like any good liberal, he thinks the document’s faults are in its narrow provisions, not its sweeping principles. “I think it’s more likely that if we look back with regret at our dedication to the Constitution, it will be with respect to the structural provisions, rather than the liberty and equality ones.”
Klosterman isn’t so sure. After raising in a light way some deep questions about equality, democracy, and free speech, he concludes: “The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful.”
Realizing that he is about to transgress something holy, Klosterman backs away from the implications of his argument. In this, he’s typical of our time. Illiberalism is either feared as a taboo or enjoyed as a transgression. Even those who raise its banner revel in its marginality. When and how will that change?
—Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?