Light and loss, gossip and God in New England

h1 August 23rd, 2006 by jules

abide.gifEisha added a link to Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust here on our blog. I always have my own, little internal sturm und drang about looking at such sites — I really want to, being the book nerd I am, but perhaps I will see something I want to read and will want to add it to my already unwieldy reading list. It’s almost as if I look at them all squinty-eyed with my hands partly covering my face, not unlike you would look at a train wreck if you passed it. You are compelled to look, but you’re scared. But, well, I did. I went. I saw. I added. In fact, I was so intrigued by Pearl’s review of Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me (2006) that I didn’t just add it to my list. I went and got it from the library and started it and found it hard to put down.

Our protagonist, Tyler Caskey, is a pastor in the small, fictional town of West Annett, Maine. It is the late 1950s when Khrushchev, the fear of nuclear war, bomb shelters, the so-called nuclear family, and the psychoanalyses of Freud dominate the political and cultural landscape in America. Tyler — gentle, handsome, possessed with a certain quiet intensity, intelligent and studious (often quoting text from his idol, Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and beloved by his congregation — sees “all of life as a miracle” and always thinks of the other person first, a rule of conduct he lives by, handed down from his father. But, when we meet him, he’s grieving over the death of his wife, Lauren, by a sudden and prolonged illness; his young daughter, Katherine, refuses to speak; and his congregation — in essence, the entire town — lapses in their devotion to him, resorting to the type of vicious and petty gossip that rears its ugly head in such small groups of people.

And worse yet, in Tyler’s view, he is no longer consumed by what he calls The Feeling, the presence of God in the air that you could feel as “distinctly as you would feel the water around you if you were swimming in a lake . . . The Feeling was large and quiet and magnificent.” When first arriving in West Annett with his new wife, “The Feeling would come to him. Life . . . how mysterious . . .! Such abundance! . . . His own specific history was unfolding.” Now, he longs for it:

. . . “when every flicker of light that touched the dipping branches of a weeping willow, every breath of breeze that bent the grass toward the row of apple trees, every shower of yellow gingko leaves dropping to the ground with such direct and tender sweetness, would fill the minister with profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there.”

This novel is about that struggle; about his congregation’s sudden lack of faith in his leadership and how they respond to the revelation of a dark secret; and about loss and, ultimately, redemption. In Nancy Pearl’s words, this might sound goopy, soppy — a bit much, right? Well, no, the novel’s quiet power snuck up on me, and I found myself so concerned about what would happen, so engaged with the characters. They don’t exactly leap off the page, as we book-lovers tend to say; they tiptoe quietly, as this novel’s tone is rather subdued, somewhat melancholy and its pace unhurried — a lot like the town of West Annett itself. But they surely came to life, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

Strout’s writing is absorping, and she’s capable of some alluring moments of metaphor, my favorite being the description of the mood in the room when Tyler is speaking to Connie Hatch, his part-time housekeeper, who is more than what she seems: “It seemed a calmly played middle C hung in the air between them.” But, most striking, is her truly luminescent writing — in more ways than one. She provides recurring descriptions of the light in West Annett, the way the skyline looks beyond or between the trees, using this resplendent imagery as a way to foreshadow events to come: “The trees along the river appeared caught in a state of half-undress. There were still some leaves, but enough were gone that you could look straight through the trunks and sky; there was a sense of coming nakedness” and “{t}he world, with its pale noonday light washing through the mostly bare trees, seemed to fill with invisible currents — strips of knowledge {Tyler} seemed unable to get hold of.” And here, Strout describing Tyler’s sense of Lauren, having first met her: “Lauren was all
light . . . such light shone.” These moments are all over the place, and I was struck by their beauty.

Strout shows us every inch of her characters — their flaws, their triumphs, their goodness, their ignoble, hostile bents. And no one is quite what they seem, providing one of the larger themes of this novel. Tyler wonders, halfway through the novel in the midst of his struggles, what do people really know of themselves? Of their children?

Charlie, the seemingly together high school Latin teacher, is unhappy with his children (disgusted, really, at merely the sight of his gangly teenage son), miserable in his marriage, having an affair with a nameless woman in Boston. And in an interesting twist, he — not his wife — fears a mental disorder, goes to the library to look up the meaning of “nervous breakdown.” He fears electric shock therapy, should he tell anyone (there is even a moment when he stares at the wallpaper print in the kitchen as if he’s never seen it. Hmmm . . . Charlotte Perkins Gilman, anyone? Whether or not Strout intended this is unknown, but it certainly brought this short story to my mind). We even find out that he has hit his wife but not until after she threw the first punch. In an era in which women were increasingly depicted as stir-crazy in the home and verging on mental illness, it was certainly unusual but fascinating to read about this occurring with a male character (though there is a good dose of women’s quiet suffering as well, which is not surprising. The church’s Ladies’ Aid coffee meetings, all gabby and gossipy, “gave the women something to look forward to . . . the boredom of changing sheets or cleaning a bathroom could sometimes mushroom into a private despair before noontime even arrived”). Charlie is one of the most complex, troubled, and sympathetic characters, and his contribution to the events that unfold in the book’s climax is almost heartbreaking.

The (very emotional) climax of this novel is not at all what one expects or even hopes for, but when it happened, it was all perfect and right — and genuinely moving. Earlier in the novel, Tyler’s mentor from seminary tells him, “{c}onfusion will prevent you from being dogmatic. A dogmatic pastor is useless.” That statement says a lot about this novel — how stumbling and loss and sorrow and confusion will not kill a person. We may stumble through, but we might also come out on the other side with a little bit of earned grace, knowing how to give and receive love. Strout provides no easy answers — just as in life.

One comment to “Light and loss, gossip and God in New England”

  1. hmm, i’m intrigued. esp. by the Charlie sub-plot. you’re right, you don’t see portrayals of men going through psychological distress in 1950s america very often, except in Salinger.

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