John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry speaks the American language of the tall tale: Its braggadocio is disguised as candor, and the novel mutes any trace of absurdity with its sharp plot, its tendency to whisper secrets rather than dwell on them, and its preference for scene overexposition. Set on the American frontier in the mid-1880s, Whiskey When We’re Dry presents itself as the confessions of one Jessilyn Harney, then an orphaned, teenaged girl who embarks from her ruined family farmstead to track (and reunite with) her outlaw brother Noah.
Jess narrates the novel in her own gruff idiom, a blend of frontier gumption and the brusque wisdom of her Pa, a disgraced Union sniper who refused to betray much about his past. Rather than a cacophony of dialect, though, Jess speaks with a ballad’s cadence and a con man’s lethal intent. Her voice plays a variation of the hollow, aggressive masculinity of the American West and the refrains of Manifest Destiny. In doing so, her frontier journeys illustrate how vacant the promises of the West are: Its rewards are reserved for those with political and economic power, the ones who become the official authors of history.
But circumstances nonetheless provide Jess with frequent occasion to study and emulate the self-important posturing of settler men. Her mother died in childbirth, so Jess spent her formative years orbiting the inevitable clashes between her Pa and Noah—Oedipal disputes that devolved into fistfights, drove Noah from the homestead, and launched his career as a notorious outlaw. After her Pa is killed, possibly in an ambush by other ranchers, Jess realizes that she cannot manage their remaining cattle by her lonesome—especially when the only conventional recourses permitted to a teen girl on the frontier were marriage or sex work. But she knows that conventions exist to be flouted, a lesson she learned when her Pa took her to a trick shooter’s performance. In the trick shooter, Jess has found an alternative to frontier womanhood:
Straight-Eye Susan wasn’t no man, of course. She was a woman some years past marrying age wearing a white dress with flowers embroidered on it and a showman’s hat and a golden revolver to match the golden action of her Winchester repeater. The men in the crowd called at her and said things they might only say to a whore, and she picked these men from the audience and dared them to stand still while she shot matches from their teeth and casings from their hats. Not a taunt rose from the crowd after that.
After her Pa’s death, a cruel winter, and troubles maintaining their herd of cattle, Jess resolves to follow Straight-Eye Susan’s model, but with a twist. “The idea had been coming to me for weeks,” she admits. “I just then set about doing it.” She hacks her hair, outfits herself in some of Noah’s too-tight boyhood clothes, and sets out with her Pa’s pistol and rifle—a fateful decision that takes her through ambushes, trick-shooting contests in which she alternately fails and wins, a stint serving in the territorial governor’s private guard, and an ultimate reunion with Noah (and his gang of outlaws).
If the narrator were different, or if the novel were in third person, Larison might not have managed the feat of constructing Jess’s frontier, let alone maintaining the novel’s breathless pace. In his introduction to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, collected in The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders offers a possible explanation for how a writer like Larison might pull this off: “This first-person voice turned out to be one of the most natural and poetic literary voices ever devised, a voice still startling in its ability to bring the physical world … off the page and into our heads.” Saunders makes the geography of Huckleberry Finn seem much lusher than it is, and the rhythm of Larison’s prose has a similar effect. Here, for instance, is Jess describing the approach to a valley while she, Noah, and their fellow outlaws are fleeing the forces of the territorial governor: “From here we had a long view over the terrain we’d just now transcended. In all directions stood rocky crags. The wind sifted the pines. A pair of jays mimicked the call of an eagle. We didn’t stop to gander but kept on and soon broke over the top of the lip.” The language is concrete, taut, but not particularly evocative. It needs the nearly iambic cadence of Jess’s voice to become more rugged, more textured, than a stock still of a John Wayne flick’s crags and scrublands.
Still, the brutalism and self-interest of this novel’s characters seem a necessary indictment of the American ethos, especially in 2018. The Civil War remains a tender scar for Larison’s white settlers, as they align themselves with the Yanks or the Rebs. (The only common traits are their shared xenophobia toward Mexicans and Native Americans and their racism toward the novel’s few black characters—almost all servants caught up in institutional traps that perpetuated the power dynamics of slavery.) But while Jess is complex, the tall tale seldom tolerates a wealth of round characters. So Larison falls back on types. The men are usually cutouts, generic gun-slinging toughs, too incompetent to see around Jess’s disguise. The other women are either stoic ace shooters like Straight-Eye Susan or Jess’s eventual love interest Annette, sweet-talking sex workers in brothels, or starry-eyed angel-of-the-household types like the governor’s daughter Constance and Noah’s wife Jane. One wonders how the novel might have retuned the tall tale’s timbre if Whiskey When We’re Dry had looked to the women of Willa Cather’s frontier novels or the men of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (even if Hansen’s prose feels dowdy, if not pedantic, next to Larison’s).
However, since Twain’s tall tales are the more obvious ancestors of Larison’s novel, we should approach Whiskey When We’re Dry with a rapt skepticism. If Twain’s Huck Finn can hoodwink Saunders into declaring the first person so sincerely “natural,” Larison’s Jess Harney can also fleece the 21st-century reader. After all, Jess has a stake here: Telling this tale gives her a final shot at preserving her own reputation as a gunslinger and undercutting the history peddled by the territorial governor and the victors of Manifest Destiny. In telling it, Jess Harney situates herself as the true outlaw who stood against the brutality of the American West and the fickle whims of men, even if they claimed credit for her skill as a schemer and a hired gun. And she does so at the expense of Noah’s legend: She credits herself as the mastermind who pulled a daring, dead-of-night counterattack when the governor’s militia besieged a town under Noah’s care, and she takes for herself the mantle of the willing martyr who sacrificed her own mythic stature in the West so Noah, his wife Jane, and their daughter could escape to Canada.
What makes a tall tale like Whiskey When We’re Dry so distinctly American, though, is its interest in chronicling the individual rather than the past. For Jessilyn Harney, telling her story is akin to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”: She can insist that she existed; that she had the mettle to shape the world after her own vision; and that neither history, prison, nor infamy can stifle the sound of her voice over the frontier’s endless terrain.
I am a writer because, as a married man, I cannot become a priest. Fittingly, I first met my wife at a priest’s rectory. Father Joe Celia made dinner each Sunday for student parishioners of St. Pius X church at Susquehanna University. Twenty students lined two tables that stretched out of the dining room and into the living room. I came for the gravy, meatballs, and garlic bread — authentic Italian cooking was in short supply in this pocket of central Pennsylvania — and for the friendship of Father Joe. I quit the college’s basketball team when I didn’t land the starting point guard spot as a freshman. My coach told me to have patience; Father Joe added that I could benefit from some humility. I didn’t listen to either of them, and would live to regret it. So goes Catholic guilt.
Father Joe reminded me that I was in college to study, not dribble. He was a patient mentor, and a saint for his willingness to read my terrible first drafts. In one story, I spent thirteen pages going step-by-step through the celebration of Mass. Father Joe gave that one back to me and said he had enough of that each weekend. Summary is sacred.
I missed my family back in New Jersey, but Father Joe’s dinners helped ease the distance. Most of the students at those dinners were weekly regulars, but one Sunday I noticed a beautiful girl sitting with friends in the living room. My first words to her were the less-than-smooth “dinner is ready.” We grew up a half hour away from each other. My AAU basketball practices and home games were played at her Catholic high school. She would run sprints for winter track while I fronted a full-court press, but we never met. It was not yet our time. But it was our time that afternoon. I did not simply fall in love; I collapsed and keeled. After dinner I told my roommate that I would marry Jen. It was an accurate prediction.
Only a few months earlier, I had made another prediction to my roommate. I was going to enter the seminary to become a priest. More specifically, I wanted to become a Jesuit. And by “entering the seminary,” I meant beginning the discernment process that preceded the long formation period. It can take nearly a decade to be ordained as a Jesuit, but they seemed like the best fit for me. They were priests, but they were also lawyers, teachers, and writers.
When I met my future wife that Sunday afternoon, I did not hear thunder. I did not shudder at betraying God. Rather, I recognized that my belief was not meant to develop into ordination. I was not meant to become a priest. I was meant to become a husband and a father. I should have trusted in my family’s history. My own father, while a student at Holy Cross College, was preparing to enter Jesuit discernment when he met my mother. Thankfully, they chose each other.
So much of faith is a matter of similar pivots and choices. Late in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is confronted by his friend, Cranly. Dedalus does not want to attend Easter Mass, upsetting his mother. Cranly quips that it “is a curious thing, do you know…how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Dedalus, ever sensitive and defensive, stands his ground, stating that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church.” James Joyce’s entire canon is steeped in the Catholicism he rejected. For Stephen, and for Joyce, the poet replaces the priest. Dogma gets in the way. Transcendence is found in art. Although young Stephen dreamt of standing before a congregation, as an adult he would rather be God on the page. I love Joyce’s work, but disagree with his conclusions. He was a shrewd enough Catholic to know that Stephen’s words reflect Lucifer’s, but more importantly, they reveal a dual rejection of servitude to the Church and priestly service to the flock.
Like Joyce, I am a cradle Catholic. I have known no other creed. My childhood was suffused with rosaries, missals, crosses on chains, books about saints, nightly prayers, reflections on the pain and power of the Passion and the Resurrection, and Mass, but it was also saturated with watching the Boston Celtics and taping Hot 97 on both sides of cassettes until Biggie blurred into EPMD. New Jersey is a synthesis of Philadelphia and New York City, of Newark and the Pine Barrens. Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and Irish immigrants have created a folk Catholicism that begins in our cities but bleeds toward the suburbs, where each small parish has its own culture. Here in Jersey, The Exorcist still wounds us, but we return to it, like paying respect to a warning. Weird NJ is not simply a regional magazine; it is a way of life. The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.
Even as a boy, I knew that most devout Catholics did not enter the clergy, but I was always interested in the vocations of priests. They were very much regular men. My priest joked with parishioners after Mass, gave us pep talks before CYO games, and ate French onion soup at Houlihan’s. My interest in the vocation began with those observations, but evolved during college. I moved from studying astronomy, a theology of the stars, to literature and creative writing. Comparative literary analysis fits Catholicism well. Catholic thought is diverse and deep, from Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Walter Ong, SJ, and G.E.M. Anscombe. For me, the Bible was the ultimate text: an amalgamation of literary forms, a work that demanded attention, elicited contrasting reactions, and always seemed to reveal fresh meanings after re-readings. It was that intellectual pull, coupled with the beauty of ritual and the opportunity to offer spiritual support to a community that made me want to become a priest.
When I say that I cannot become a priest because I am married, I do not mean to simplify that statement, or to offer it as a complaint. If I were able to become a priest now, that decision would not be my own; it would belong to my wife. And that is one tremendous hypothetical. Catholics know Pope Francis is brilliant, compassionate, and not interested in changing doctrine. My personal desire to become a priest does not alone warrant revision of clerical celibacy. But I remain a practicing Catholic. You might call me an elapsed Catholic, to satisfy the jokes of my lapsed friends. My doubts have never been about God, but about the mechanisms of the Church, the institutional sins. Yet I have been blessed with the acquaintance of wonderful priests like Father Joe. Perhaps I am spoiled, but I have seen priests live as writers. The novelist Ron Hansen, while not a priest, is a deacon in the San Jose diocese. A lifelong Catholic who attended daily Mass, Hansen’s earliest novels were historical westerns, including Desperados and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He explains that his earlier subject matter was the result of following T.S. Eliot’s critical precept of the “wholesale subtraction of my own personality and the submersion of my familial and religious experiences.” “Frustrated” that his fiction “did not more fully communicate a belief in Jesus as Lord that was so important, indeed central, to my life,” Hansen wrote Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel about a stigmatic seventeen year-old woman who enters a convent in upstate New York. Ever since, Hansen has not shied from engaging the mysteries of faith, but believes that fiction writers “can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.” I appreciate that sentiment. I have never hid my belief, but do not compel others to follow my faith. Like Luke Ripley in Andre Dubus’s wonderful “A Father’s Story,” I “have no missionary instincts.”
Contemporary priests who write recognize they must pass the highest stands of craft and storytelling before engaging the spiritual. I think of the excellent writing by priests at The Jesuit Post, the sharp cultural work of Fr. James Martin, SJ, known by many as the “Colbert Show chaplain,” and the fiction of Fr. Uwem Akpan, SJ. Born and raised in Nigeria, Fr. Akpan earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. His short fiction appeared in The New Yorker before being collected in Say You’re One of Them. He has noted that while not all priests are writers in the traditional sense, “there is no running away from the poetic and creative side of carrying the Word of God to His people.” Echoing Hansen, Fr. Akpan is drawn to fiction because it is “exploratory” and “not doctrinaire.” His description could apply to Outer Darkness, a “grounded take on exorcism . . . exploring everyday evil in an idyllic Midwestern town.” The show is currently in development from AMC, and is written and co-executive produced by Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ. These contemporary priest-writers follow in the lineage of 19th century British Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose groundbreaking poetry intrigues believers and non-believers alike.
This cross-appeal may be why priests make such complex characters in fiction. Consider the priests in The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, not to mention the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, and Erin McGraw.
Priests and writers have much in common. Priests need to craft homilies that connect with an audience. These audiences range from the standing-room holiday crowds to the handful of daily congregants. A homily must simultaneously inform, entertain, and most importantly, serve as spiritual guidance and replenishment. Priests modulate between abstractions and specifics. They reach for the didactic without becoming pedantic. The celebration of Mass can be a grand ritual, the perfect antidote to a prosaic week, which makes poorly organized liturgical celebrations and flat sermons so obvious.
Even the most dedicated Catholics become uncomfortable in pews. Some are waiting to bring their daughters to soccer games. Others pine to watch football or stream Scandal. They have good intentions, but they offer both subtle and obvious cues when their attention is strained. A good priest will know the limits of his audience; a great priest will help them transcend those limits. He will show them the joy of this time spent together. As Thomas Merton said, “the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion.”
I write for many of the same reasons that I wanted to become a priest. I want to bear witness to a sacramental vision. I want to admit my life as a sinner. Rather than judge others, I want to use empathy to sketch their imperfect lives on the page, and find the God that I know resides within them. Similar to the life of a priest, there is a space for silence in my writing life, but also a time of engagement with both reader and place.
I write from a Catholic worldview, but don’t often write about clergy or Catholic schools. Father Joe taught me that lesson, and thankfully, I listened. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I recognize that time spent at my desk can devolve into hours of selfishness, so I need to earn those words. Good fiction can be a form of good works. As a Catholic, I recognize that life is a story of continuous revision, of failure and unexpected grace, and of dogged hope. I am comfortable with the white space of ambiguity and mystery. I have faith, not certainty. To approach God in any other manner deflates the divine. I write and I believe in order to better see the world. Now, more than a decade after I left that rectory convinced I was meant to become a father and not a Father, a writer and not a pastor, I finally realize that I have not traded one vocation for another. I have discovered their common source.
Image via firstworldchild/Flickr
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.