Many years ago I was fortunate enough to teach a college course on “American Catholic Novels.” While working on the initial program, I knew what my first selection would be: Final payments, the brilliant and heartbreaking 1978 novel by Mary Gordon. The story of Isabel Moore, a young Irish Catholic who found her way in the afterlife of a bossy and complicated father whom she had cared for for years, matched several of the themes I wanted to address with my students: the reality of change in a church that so often wants to be immutable, the persistence of a sacramental imaginary in an American context that so often rejects it, the difficulty of seeking holiness and personal integrity in a setting where two objectives may seem contradictory. In my opinion, Isabel Moore was a powerful characterization of the life and times of so many American Catholics then and today.
“For most people, Catholic means only one of three things: an unfortunate tendency to lean to the right, an appetite for sexual repression, an innate or very early developed talent for blind obedience. “
So it should perhaps come as no surprise that when America asked Mary Gordon earlier this year to write the âlast wordâ in our Spring Literary Review, she chose a topic that will also be the title of her next book: âWhat Kind of Catholic Are You? For most people, Gordon wrote: âCatholic means only one of three things: an unfortunate tendency to lean to the right, an appetite for sexual repression, an innate or very early developed talent for blind obedience. Gordon, who over the years has published dozens of novels, memoirs and short stories, has always had a complicated – let’s say nuanced – relationship with Catholicism, and so it upsets her when people ask him, “Why are you still catholic? “
“The answer that usually silences people,” she writes, “is that” the terms are broad. “”
For his project, Gordon proposed pairs of people who attribute their ideas to their Catholicism, except that their ideas are diametrically opposed. Bill O’Reilly is linked to Stephen Colbert; Anna Quindlen forms a strange couple with Ross Douthat; Rachel Maddow meets Laura Ingraham; etc. âI have a lot more affinities with some of these people than others, just as I have more affinities with some of the fictional characters that I’ve created than with others. But I don’t create no characters; they’re real people with real lives that I don’t control, “writes Gordon.” But I hope some of my novelist’s habits of mind and language can come in handy as I try to understand lives in some ways similar to mine and in others very different from mine. “
For his project, Gordon proposed pairs of people who attribute their ideas to their Catholicism, except that their ideas are diametrically opposed.
In other words, Gordon has no interest in playing “an extended game of I got youâTo prove who is and who is not really Catholic: âI believe that because the people I write about share with me a vocabulary, a set of shared images and practices (after all, when we hear the ‘Hail Mary’, we all know the words. ), there are solid foundations we can all stand on.
Gordon also remains a prolific novelist, with 2020 marking the release of Refund, his ninth. In his review of the book for America, Mike Mastromatteo notes that “readers familiar with Gordon’s early fictions will almost certainly be delighted with Refund“, A novel that” features complex characters that inevitably force readers to consider ideas far beyond the mundane. “
The novel centers on Rhode Island art teacher Agnes Vaughan and her life of remorse for failing a vulnerable student decades before. The student, meanwhile, has spent 40 years orchestrating revenge for what she perceives to be her teacher’s cruelty. Eventually, she becomes the host of a reality TV show that allows victims of wrongdoing to confront their tormentors – “a sort of trash television,” writes Mastromatteo, “where the ‘devables’ gain a form of humiliating justice. The result is “a compelling recognition of the cult of victimization and its impact on social concepts of justice, forgiveness and healing.” “Reality TV: There was nothing real about it,” Gordon writes in Refund. “It was an invention, a formatting, as fictitious as any fiction, especially since it denied its fiction, made a fiction of truth and a truth of fiction.”
Come back to Final payments (I’m still a little obsessed). For some reason America reviewed the book twice, with Mary Sabolik providing substantial review that praised Gordon’s story. “In addition to the specifics of class and place, there are, for any young woman brought up in the Catholic Church, many jolts of recognition in this book, because Isabel’s natural impulses clash with her religious sensitivity”, Sabolik wrote. âAs the central character of the novel, Isabel is a richly complicated woman, both vulnerable and provocative. Gordon, Sabolik wrote, captured the petty cruelties as well as the lofty impulses of everyday life: “While the author’s treatment of the character is insightful and sympathetic, he is also unabashedly honest. “
that of Mary Gordon Refund âOffers complex characters that inevitably force readers to consider ideas far beyond the mundane. “
Gordon later published The Shadow Man: a girl in search of her father, a memoir of her research into the life of the man who died in 1957 when she was seven years old, and with whom the father of Final payments shared many characteristics. Gordon discovered that much of what she knew about her father was the result of family myths and her own misleading account of himself. Her name, birthplace, background, and catalog of published writings, which she discovered during her research, were all primarily fiction. It creates a curious thrill for a novelist, doesn’t it, when you realize that someone you tried to make into fiction had done the same with their supposed facts? What did Gordon say above about making âa fiction of truth and a truth of fictionâ?
A decade later, Gordon wrote another memoir, this time about his relationship with his mother. “Unswervingly honest” also describes Gordon’s prose in Circle my mother, where she dispassionately writes about a complicated and difficult woman who has faced physical obstacles and ultimately dementia with supernatural stubbornness. âShe’s become my words,â Gordon writes near the end of the book, âor dust. Both. How is it possible to figure this out?
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“She has become my words,” writes Gordon towards the end of Circle my mother, “or dust. Both. How is it possible to understand this?
Other columns from the Catholic Book Club:
Remembering Barry Lopez, lyrical travel writer and ecological prophet
Willie James Jennings and the Academic Culture of Exclusion
America baseball writers through the years
Phil Klay sounds like Pope Francis
Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is this Sally Rooney?
Jonathan Franzen writes the American Walking middle
James T. Keane