Today, Word on Fire Blog contributor Ellyn von Huben speaks of the "sustenance" to be found in some of modern Catholic fiction, including Andrew McNabb's The Body of This.
Almost a decade after the rest of the world, I finally got around to reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This became the first weighty tome that I declared a “Boppy Book.” [ A Boppy is a baby-supporting pillow that mothers can use to prevent arm and back strain. My Boppy was meant for use when my granddaughter was visiting, but it can be a great help in propping up substantial books in marathon reading sessions. ]
This overstuffed doughnut also comes in handy to toss across the room while yelling, “And your point was...?” I did this again upon finishing Franzen’s Freedom. Cheated would be the word to describe my reaction to being enthralled by an author’s storytelling ability, only to be left with the realization that there was no destination in the verbal journey.
Which brings me to my point: Somewhere between Veggie Tales and authors whose gifted writing provides all mental dessert and minimal nutrition, there is sustenance to be found in modern Catholic fiction.
A great example is Andrew McNabb’s The Body of This. McNabb is a young writer from Maine who finds inspiration in his immediate surroundings and offers us vivid and precise slices of life in short story form from a decidedly Catholic perspective:
The thoughts and actions of a man in a precarious relationship when he happens to buy the big winning lottery ticket; a tired young mother remembers the beautiful nun who had been her grade school teacher and longs for the celibate life; a pious young teenager wrestles with a challenge to his presumed vocation; a genteel older wife drops her guard to protect and sustain her husband; a lawyer strives for Christian ideals by submitting to humble work at Home Depot.
Not everyone would agree with me. Or, us, if I dare include myself with the distinguished likes of Brett Lott (who included the story “To Jesus’s Shoulder” in Not Safe, But Good Vol. 2,
a compilation of the best Christian stories of 2007) and Piers Paul Read.
I read the Amazon.com reviews long after I had read the book and found myself in amusing disagreement with the first reviewer
“BUT, if a person does not mind descriptions of bodily parts and bodily functions on practically every page then they will LOVE this book...If you enjoy profanity then you will relish The Body of This, and if you despise Catholic piety then you will be even more delighted, since it is pretty scarce in the volume.”
I don’t think I love this book just because I have no aversion to bodily parts and functions. And we should bear in mind that we are indeed souls with bodies; God himself became man and shared in our physical reality. Good stories about people will almost always have to bring their corporal essence into the equation. There most certainly can be stories about those whose lives take a detour through the vale of the profane that do not constitute profanity. And I, who consider myself something of a connoisseur of popular Catholic piety, know that stories that cut to the marrow of our Catholic existence can appear antithetical to the sweet saints of my favorite laminated holy cards.
One of my favorites quotes from Flannery O’Connor (a favorite quote among favorites) is from her description of the necessity of the use of violent imagery in fiction: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; ... then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Some 45 years after Miss O’Connor’s death, there are still the spiritually hard of hearing and virtually blind who need the volume and the “large and startling figures.” That is what Andrew McNabb presents to us. He has made modest characters into large and startling figures who deliver a jolt and catch our attention to witness the movement of grace in ordinary lives.
The negative Amazon review classified this as “vulgarity masquerading as art.” Indeed, there are moments in The Body of This that are not for the squeamish, but that does not preclude its being art. If there is an affliction in the world of religious art today, whether visual or verbal, it is the paucity of honest moments of grace in a genuinely human context. The saccharine masquerading as art is everywhere and true precious moments of grace are overlooked in a search for the safe and sweet (for example, the title “painter of light” has been misappropriated from artists who can really paint light, in the literal and figurative sense, such as my particular favorites, Caravaggio and Bouguereau).
And the large and startling figures created by Andrew McNabb stand as a sometimes bitter but necessary antidote to the gushing glurge and torrent of treacle that one comes upon in the search for religious artistic expression. It brings to mind Matthew 7:8-10: For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?
When we look for substantive literature we do not want fluff. When we seek, there should be food for thought to be found. Andrew McNabb delivers. And I am looking forward to hearing more from him in the future.
 Flannery O’Connor, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald eds., Mystery and Manners (New York; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1969) pp. 33-34