This Our Exile
by joshua hren
angelico press, 142 pages, $18
What is “Catholic fiction”? Must it instruct us in dogma? Or present a sacramental worldview? Must it be written for professing Catholics by a professing Catholic? Or by a saint? Joshua Hren’s new collection of short stories, This Our Exile, treads a via media among these criteria. There are no priest-heroes, but each of the twelve stories contains some explicit reference to the Church. Hren has a deep moral imagination, but these stories are not mere morality tales. Characters are not props for a sermon, but real, often desperate people who act as real people do. As Dana Gioia has written in these pages, “Catholic literature is rarely pious. In ways that sometimes trouble or puzzle both Protestant and secular readers, Catholic writing tends to be comic, rowdy, rude, and even violent.” In other words, Catholic literature mirrors life, and This Our Exile gives us literature and life in equal measure.
“Control,” which is told from the perspective of a man both before and after his girlfriend has an abortion, illustrates Hren’s defining concerns. The main characters live in a seedy neighborhood where the only person who maintains his lawn is Kellogg Mink, later revealed to be a serial killer. This quiet grotesquerie is typical: Hren’s characters are killers’ neighbors, not killers themselves. They are too mediocre for real malefaction. Doubly exiled by sin and postmodernity, they cannot act until grace breaks in. This grace, however, is not Calvin’s irresistible grace. It does not force the characters’ hands—it only forces crises. The characters, and by extension we, are free to choose. The stories in This Our Exile do not resolve in a traditional sense, but stop at the moment of crisis, leaving salvation open as a possibility.
Hren’s characters are almost always given epiphanies, allowing them to peer beyond their exile. In the case of “In a Better Place,” Garrett and Ella spend their evenings in their chilly apartment, unable to pay the heating bill. They are reluctant to have children, but they are almost obsessively invested in television news. The story opens with a report on the death of an infant who was left unattended by his meth-addicted parents, before moving to news of a suicide bombing in Paris, video of which is repeated gratuitously, “this time in slow motion.” Garrett confesses a desire to understand the attacker. Ella objects: “Why are you always so quick to feel sympathy with the rest of the world—literally anyone, but then there’s nothing for me, for—how could I bring a child into the world knowing there’d be nothing for her, either?” Garrett’s passions are disordered. He cares too much for people on the television screen, and too little for those with whom he should have a real relationship. His passions are reordered only when he agrees to love his wife fully and fruitfully. He throws away the condom before sex, and for the first time they achieve real physical union.
The finest piece in the collection is “Sacre Cœur,” in which Marie, the teenage daughter of a divorced couple, has found the last true rebellion: the mortification of the flesh. Though her mother encourages her to have casual sex, Marie has taken to wearing a burlap sack as a makeshift hair shirt, an idea she got from a book by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Marie recognizes the real human good in sensory pleasures such as eating crispy bacon and smoking cigarettes, but she understands that there are higher goods to be attained through self-denial. Her divorced parents each have an incomplete conception of the human person. Her mother cares far too much about the health of the body, to the soul’s neglect; her father cares very little about either and dies, presumably of a heart attack, while spelling out the phrase “Sacre Coeur” with Scrabble pieces, leaving it incomplete. It is Marie who is the whole person.
“Wrecking Ball” finds the young urbanite Blaise wandering through the abandoned brewery where his father and grandfather used to work. In the end he serendipitously climbs onto a wrecking ball stationed there and swings from it like a child, becoming a symbol for “that kind of creation which can only be destruction.” We see this theme again in the book’s penultimate story, by far its longest, “Everything Must Go,” in which ice cream mogul Cole Fedd attempts a vacation with two of his lackeys. The account of the vacation is interspersed with letters and memories of a former lover who has moved to Africa to do humanitarian work. In one letter, besides helpfully explaining the Latin root of the word “vacation” (vacare “to be empty”), the lover writes: “The view from here is glory, I guess. Painful glory, and down to earth is anything but. That is, everything is elevated, in my mind.” In losing her life, she has found it. But there is something comic in this tragic tale. Mr. Fedd is not a romantic antiheroic loner; rather, he is a glorified ice cream man. He is a peddler of a soft, sweet luxury item (the name of his company is “Fat Fedd’s”). By going on this vacation, this emptying, Fedd trims the fat, so to speak, and is at last able to ready himself for judgment.
This Our Exile is full of these contradictions—or, rather, paradoxes. It is tragic, yet comic. It is at times absurd, but it is rooted in right reason. “Gates of Eden” provides a skeleton key to understanding these paradoxes. Blaise, the protagonist of “Wrecking Ball,” and his neighbor, Abdul, look at an image of the Black Madonna and realize that “Jesus’s face was dark, and the Madonna’s face was dark and scarred, but somehow the gilded, bejeweled crowns above their heads completed their faces, did not come off as counterpoints.” Likewise, the paradoxes in This Our Exile come together to show the reader that exile, the grit of life, is not counterpoint to salvation, but part and parcel to it. Our earthly bodies will be not shuffled off but glorified. This Our Exile allows us to see life from the perspective of Fedd’s lost lover. Through these stories we can conclude with Fedd that “Suffering = Redemptive,” and with the speaker in “Concluding Unscientific Postscript”: “This sickness is not unto death.”
Daniel Rattelle is an arts journalist and author of a chapbook, The Sleeping House.