by a.g. mojtabai
slant, 142 pages, $16
When you read an exceptionally good book, you feel a strong impulse (I do, anyway) to tell others about it. This is so even if you are committed to the irreducibility of taste—and even if you are yourself weary of endless injunctions that you MUST read x, y, or z. That impulse is stronger to the degree that you expect the book in question will not get anything like the attention it deserves—when the author in question, though she has been praised here and there over the course of her career, has mysteriously been ignored by tastemakers, and even more when she has grown old (in her eighties!), and more still when the publisher of her book is a small press (quite excellent) with no clout.
The book in question is Thirst, by A.G. (Grace) Mojtabai, a novella or short novel (I prefer the former designation) from Slant Books. It is not merely “good,” not merely worth the time and commitment required for you to acquire and read it; it is one of the most memorable works of fiction I’ve read in the last decade. Ten years ago, in Books & Culture, I wrote about “the Anti-Career of A.G. Mojtabai”; the occasion was the publication of her brilliant novel Parts of a World. Between that time and the appearance of Thirst, she’s published just one book, Shine on Me (2016), also a novella or short novel, parable-like.
In that 2011 piece for B&C, I said a bit about her fascination with religion and the writer:
In 1995, Mojtabai published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly, “Religion and the Writer,” based on a conference presentation. The papers from that gathering, revised and expanded, were published in book form as The Writer and Religion, edited by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco (Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2000), and it would be worth your trouble to track down that volume, not only for Mojtabai's essay (here titled “A Writer and Religion: Musings, Interrogations, Avowals”) but also for the responses to it from panelists and audience members. Mojtabai argues that too many writers of fiction (herself included in her first several books, she says) have been guilty of “shutting out the voices we don't want to hear,” voices expressing “a religious hunger in our country and in our world so widespread that writers ignore or disdain it at our peril.” She speaks, rather allusively, of her Jewish ancestors, and seems to place herself among those who have “lost much of the traditional language of religious belief” yet “haven't lost the yearning for that belief.” Her argument is (mostly) received with a mixture of incomprehension, condescension, and barely suppressed anger. Marc Chénetier, a French professor of American literature, lays down the law: fiction, you see, is “all about doubt.” (These primitive Americans!)
For a fuller account of the trajectory that led Mojtabai to move from New York to Amarillo, Texas, decades ago and her growing awareness of voices “expressing a religious hunger,” I recommend an essay-review by Joshua O’Brien in Vol. 85 of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, “Mojtabai as Panhandle Author.” O’Brien’s piece is one of the best accounts of her work we have.
There’s plenty of “doubt” in Mojtabai’s new book, though perhaps not enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of Marc Chénetier and his ilk, since “doubt” and “faith” are both strongly present and indeed intertwined in Thirst. Father Theo, a lifetime priest, serves in a mission diocese in rural Texas. The adjacent convent now holds only seven sisters, six of them infirm to a greater or lesser degree. Father Theo himself has been feeling the burden of the years, and at the end of the short first chapter he withdraws to die, a job that will require some time.
Theo’s first cousin, Lena, with whom he grew up in a small, intensely Catholic, German immigrant community in Texas, flies down from Chicago to help after she’s contacted by the diocese. In contrast to Theo, who was set on the priesthood by the age of fourteen, Lena gradually lost her faith in her teens and hasn’t looked back. Yet she still feels a bond with her cousin, even as she is frustrated by his refusal to eat or even to drink, except for “whatever moisture can be squeezed from a small sponge on a stick,” and by the way he has rid himself of virtually all of his possessions, even his treasured books.
One of Mojtabai’s earlier books, Soon, her only collection of stories, drew on her experience of volunteering for some months in the hospice ward of a hospital in Amarillo. She relies again on that firsthand experience here. She is acquainted with death and dying, but she never milks that subject for cheap emotion. Rather, whether describing Theo’s withdrawal from the world and Leah’s reactions; the response of the sisters, the congregants, Theo’s religious superiors, and others; or the “news” and other TV emanations, Mojtabai maintains an aesthetic distance that does not diminish but rather heightens the power of her narrative. There is a surprising thread of ironic humor in this little book, never forced, always welcome.
I hope I have said enough to persuade you (some of you, at any rate) to investigate Thirst. If your experience is anything like mine, you won’t be disappointed.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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