by phil klay
penguin, 416 pages, $28
In 2013, Dana Gioia argued in these pages that “although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts.” I was reminded of that contention when it dawned on me that two of the most highly praised American novels published in the last year were written by Catholic writers, Christopher Beha and Phil Klay. One might even make the case that the authors’ theological convictions are what made these novels among the finest recent attempts to achieve one of fiction’s loftiest goals, what Jonathan Franzen once called “the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.”
Beha, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, first took up matters of faith in his debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder? That novel described a conversion experience, the ethical dilemmas attending terminal illness, and the possibility of a religious vocation in a secular world. Beha took the tensions between divine and human love present in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and asked what they would look like, not in war-torn Britain, but in early-twenty-first-century America.
Phil Klay, a former second lieutenant in the Marines who deployed to Iraq in 2007, has dealt with religion less directly, but his debut collection of stories eloquently treats the moral, spiritual, and psychological costs of war. In one story, “Prayers in the Furnace,” the narrator receives a letter from an old Jesuit, which includes these words:
Sin is a lonely thing, a worm wrapped around the soul, shielding it from love, from joy, from communion with fellow men and with God. The sense that I am alone, that none can hear me, none can understand, that no one answers my cries, it is a sickness over which, to borrow from Bernanos, “the vast tide of divine love, that sea of living, roaring flame which gave birth to all things, passes vainly.” Your job, it seems, would be to find a crack through which some sort of communication can be made, one soul to another.
It is a moving passage, something one might mistakenly assume came from the pages of Thomas Merton or Georges Bernanos himself.
Beha and Klay have published ambitious novels that are shot through with moral concerns. What moves them beyond ethics to something religious is the quiet but persistent suggestion that below the ethical lies something more fundamental—something ontological, one might say. In these dramas of decline and fall, moral turpitude is not simply a failure to adjudicate the desires of self-interested individuals, but a form of idolatry, a subtle narcissism that has forgotten the human condition as something contingent and created.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Beha’s new novel, describes the trials of Frank Doyle, an aging journalist. Once a celebrated left-of-center pundit, Doyle is now out of step with the illiberal and economistic mindset of his younger colleagues. Frank has always wanted to write a political magnum opus, but it is his baseball books—The Crack of the Bat and The Smell of the Grass—that remain his greatest achievement. Writing about baseball allows the literary humanist in him to emerge. Frank struggles with the rising obsession with statistics in his beloved sport, just as he flounders in the sea of allegedly hard numbers drawn from demographics and polling that are overtaking punditry. His humanism rebels against the false precision of number-crunching political commentary.
Frank Doyle is contrasted with Sam Waxworth, newly arrived in New York City—the young man from the provinces—and riding a wave of success because he has mastered the algorithms that predict election outcomes. Sam gets a gig at an online magazine that expects him to produce a steady stream of “content.” “We’re looking for breadth, not depth,” his editor tells him. When Sam, a lover of baseball who grew up on Frank Doyle’s books, gets the assignment to do a long profile of the old man, complications ensue.
The cast of characters grows to include the rest of Doyle’s family: his investment banker wife, Kit; his grad student daughter, Margo, who aspires to write poetry; and his son, Eddie, who chose to enlist in the armed forces rather than accept a cushy job in some Manhattan skyscraper, but who is now struggling to recover a sense of meaning or purpose after his experience of war. Add to the mix Eddie Doyle’s childhood friend, Justin Price, whose scholarship to a private school has taken him from the mean streets of Brooklyn to Manhattan penthouses. Then there is the enigmatic Washington Square preacher of apocalypse, Herman Nash, with whom Eddie becomes obsessed. Back from war, Eddie is desperate to do something idealistic, but is Nash a prophet or a shyster?
Beha keeps all these narratives humming along with the apparent effortlessness that betokens great effort. The ratio between character depiction and cultural and political information is always balanced. Set in 2008, in the aftermath of the financial crisis caused by the real estate bubble, Index presents each of its essentially decent characters with a thorny ethical dilemma. The choices they make seem relatively innocuous but ultimately prove self-destructive. Insider trading, plagiarism, politically incorrect jokes on the air—the slope may be slippery, but it doesn’t look steep. Perhaps the most chilling thing about Beha’s novel is just how easy it is for even these good-hearted, upstanding citizens to begin the descent.
Phil Klay’s Missionaries centers on the violent, competing forces at play in Colombia: right-wing paramilitaries, government forces, communist-inspired FARC guerrillas, U.S. military and intelligence services, and the journalists who cover the action. It’s a regional crucible created by the combination of local poverty with foreign countries’ disposable income (and appetite for recreational drugs). The human cost includes violence, endemic poverty, civil war, and political instability and corruption. And this naturally attracts the attention of those who seek either to profit from it or to bring some sort of redemptive solution.
The latter group comprises the missionaries of the book’s ironic title. Klay’s novel, like Beha’s, resolutely refuses to turn itself into a triumphalist parable for a single political perspective. Klay’s sympathy extends to all four of his major characters: the Americans Lisette, a wire reporter, and Mason, a Special Forces medic, both recently arrived from Afghanistan; and the Colombians Abel, a former child soldier who is now struggling to establish a normal life, and Juan Pablo, a lieutenant colonel in the regular army who frets that his university-bound daughter will soon be transformed by her professors and peers into a leftist radical.
Like Beha, Klay handles his teeming cast of characters and their radically different backgrounds in masterly fashion, with a perfect blend of character development and slow, inexorable progress toward tragic conclusions. Above all, he conveys what one reviewer aptly termed “a gigantic, porous, mutable, and seemingly mission-less war.” Missionaries would make a fine brief for anyone in the political, military, or intelligence communities who wants a nuanced view of a profoundly intractable situation.
Indeed, with their multiple points of view and almost Dickensian renderings of wildly disparate corners of the social sphere, these two novels owe much of their force and coherence to the long-form investigative journalism that has been a staple of magazines like Harper’s. The convergence of fiction and journalism isn’t new: It has been around for a century at least, the classic early example being the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos. It is safe to say that the journalistic strain within American fiction has struggled for respect, especially when contrasted with more “aesthetic” styles. For decades, Dos Passos was forgotten while his fellow Lost Generation writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were lionized.
It seems appropriate that contemporary fiction reflects this infusion of journalism, given the contemporary desire for inclusiveness—no one’s story should be left out—and the sheer complexity of our public life, where technology and social media are making it more and more difficult to sort out the actual news from the fake news.
The mingling of journalism with fiction always carries with it the risk of “breadth, not depth.” What you gain in presenting a coherent, compelling overview of the social milieu has to be set against what you lose because your characters or linguistic style lack the sort of individuality and mystery that the more aesthetic forms of fiction can sometimes achieve. To put it another way: It may not be mere literary snobbery that makes us remember Nick Carraway and Frederic Henry rather than the twelve characters chronicled in Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy.
In the present case we can line Beha and Klay’s books up against more artistic and philosophical approaches to roughly the same subject matter—The Index of Self-Destructive Acts against, say, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Missionaries against the surreal fever dream that is Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.Messud’s New York intellectual, Murray Thwaite, is more of a monster than Frank Doyle, but to my mind he also reveals a bit more about the contemporary version of the trahison des clercs. Similarly, Denis Johnson’s Skip Sands is a more tortured and more complex version of Klay’s character Mason.
Here we come up against issues of individual taste. Beha’s and Klay’s novels remain compelling, substantial contributions to the possibility of a civil conversation about thorny, complicated issues. And they are written in an engaging style that will guarantee them large and appreciative readerships.
What, then, might be said about the Catholic dimension of these two books? For one thing, neither Beha nor Klay needs overt religiosity or theological spokespersons to achieve his ends: Each is content to extend the Catholic tradition of seeking out and depicting grace through nature. There’s also an awareness of ambiguity and paradox: of how virtues and vices can be two sides of the human coin; of the unintended consequences of attempting to treat social ills with military or governmental force; and of the many ways we shy away from reality through intellectual abstraction or simple denial, only to end up crashing headlong into it. Catholicism’s respect for mystery enables Beha and Klay to avoid the ideologically smug and thinly veiled political allegories that are the literary rage these days.
Above all, both authors convey what has been called the tragic sense of life, the conviction that the only hope we have for making incremental progress is to learn from the suffering our self-destructive mistakes bring us, and to keep our human fallibility and need for grace ever before our eyes.
Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Slant Books.