Set in Rome in the wake of the Second World War, The Conduct of Saints reveals Christopher Davis as a writer who remains at the height of his powers at the age of 85. The novel follows a Vatican lawyer named Brendan Doherty (who wins points in my book being a native of South Philadelphia) as he plays devil’s advocate against the man who murdered Maria Goretti yet now claims to have been saved through the soon-to-be-canonized saint’s intercession. At the same time, Doherty is also attempting to prevent the execution of Nazi war criminal Pietro Koch — not out of any sympathy for Koch or his worldview, but out of a firm belief in the sanctity of all life. The result is a complex novel that explores the intimate relationship between faith and doubt while simultaneously delivering a moving and thoroughly engaging story.
Throughout the novel, Davis’s gift for setting is especially apparent. The streets of Rome come alive on every page. Indeed, one doesn’t so much read this book as enter its perfectly imagined world of bicycles rattling over cobblestone streets, urchins begging for money, and olive trees providing the only respite from the hot summer sun. What’s more, the time period provides the ideal backdrop for a rigorous interrogation of faith and justice, as the atrocities of the Nazis are enough to raise doubts in even the most pious among us. Yet we are all fallen in some way or another, The Conduct of Saints insists on every page. And the world is highly adept at shaking our faith–however we define it and whatever we believe. Ultimately, however, it’s our power to forgive that renders us so deeply human, and this is the ultimate, uplifting message of Davis’s fine novel.
Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and spectacular writing.
In the final story of Marcus Pactor’s Vs. Death Noises, a man discovers a single hair in his bathroom and obsesses over the shape it has taken. The problem, he realizes, is that geometry can’t solve his conundrum because geometric definitions are “concerned with perfect impossibilities” whereas the world we live in is “a world of approximations.” The human experience, in other words, only translates to “[a]pproximate forms, approximate phrasings, approximate feelings.” To put it another way, we’ll never communicate perfectly with one another. Something is always lost in the translation from the lived experienced to the written or spoken word no matter how hard we try. It’s a theme that Pactor explores throughout this collection in a way that allows him to simultaneously explore the exquisite agony of the human condition.
Early on, this agony settles on a young woman struggling to understand her relationship with the man in her life only to discover that she’s unknowable even to herself in many ways: “I could not have done anything but cling to Bander because what I have been calling mistakes were simply the motions of my love and these motions were always uncertain, no matter what smiling mask I wore.” Elsewhere, it gnaws at a restaurant worker feeling remorse over an ill-fated fling with his manager: “She might try to will indifference, the same as every one of us, but my failure had nicked her heart. We all get nicked. They add up over time, and then some people lose it… and others it pills, and we tell ourselves not to care. Inside, though, we’re this bubbling cauldron of fears. We cover it with a heavy pot top and forget it on the stove.”
Yet if it’s our tendency to bury emotions deep within ourselves that contributes the most to our inability to ourselves and each other, Pactor is doing his best to uncover the hidden emotions that make us human, to lift the heavy pot top off the human heart, as it were, and shed light on the pain and suffering that are frequently so hard to describe that language fails whenever we try to talk about them. Hence, perhaps, Pactor’s fondness for the downtrodden. His characters include a starving runaway, a father and son almost wordlessly mourning the death of their wife and mother while drowning their sorrows in booze and Mel Brooks movies, and a wide range of hapless strangers trying desperately to connect with each other and the world around them.
As the stories in Vs. Death Noises all indicate, we’ll never achieve geometric perfection in our efforts at connecting with each other, but Pactor’s fiction offers hope that we can all find solace in trying.
Consisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.
For those ensconced in the relative safety of campus life, there’s arguably nothing more daunting than the prospect of entering the so-called “real world.” Yet for the college students who populate Spencer Dew’s Here Is How It Happens, the real world rears its ugly head in ways large and small as they struggle to come to grips with the relationships in their lives and the future that lies ahead for all of them. At the heart of the novel is the (largely) unrequited love of the narrator, Martin, for his best friend, Courtney. Complicating matters is the fact that both parties are trapped in dead-end relationships that offer nothing but comfortable tedium. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre goings-on further thwart their efforts at getting together — chief among them being Martin’s efforts at delivering a drug-addled lumberjack of a classmate home to his parents’ house for safekeeping.
Set for the most part at a run-down liberal arts college in a run-down college town in Ohio, the novel is nothing if not gritty. The smell of mold, stale smoke, and cat fur clings to everything and will likely stick with readers long after they’ve put the book down. What’s more, Dew perfectly captures the desperation of his characters to stay true to their ideal selves even as they realize that they’re all doomed to become echoes of their parents. In one particularly telling passage, Courtney laments the inevitable passing of all the relationships she holds dear: “Martin, we’re sophomores in college. This is the end of philosophy. From this point on, everyone we know will get old. We’ll all take jobs involving impatient commutes and pink while-you-were-away memos. The skin under our chins will go soft and droop. Money will crush us. There will never be time or humor enough. Our hairstyles will look stupid in old photographs, and we’ll be ashamed of our spinning dances, the lyrics of punk songs, that we ever drank wine with screw tops or did homework high on diet pills or shoplifted at K-Mart.”
Uplifting? Perhaps not. But certainly true, and certainly moving. In the tradition of other coming of age novels focusing on campus life like Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me and James Wronoski’s Knaves In Boyland, Here Is How It Happens perfectly captures the nebulous gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that is college life.