I’ve been invited by Tyler to throw some book recs on the pile. Since it’s a rare treat for me to discuss my favorite fiction picks, I thought I would take the opportunity and offer five. I could add many more, but I feel this is a good representative sampler, including one Jewish, two flavors of Protestant and one Catholic work. Let’s get into it!
You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.
…You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes — sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.
A coming-of-age story, a New York story, the great American novel nobody talks about. Set in the 40s/50s, it chronicles a friendship between Jewish teenagers Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders. The son of an Orthodox scholar, Reuven is devout and studious, but his tribe is less restrictive than the Hasids, where Danny’s father presides as a formidable and enigmatic rabbi. The boys first meet as enemies in one of the great opening sequences in American literature, a gripping baseball match whose climax I will not spoil for the first-time reader. Reuven quickly realizes that Danny is a genius, but that his extraordinary gift has grown in the shadow of an extraordinary pain. Potok’s great gift is the illumination of the universal through the particular, as themes of lost faith, the problem of evil, and the silence of God play across the novel’s canvas in microcosm. By initiating us into the particular sorrows and joys of Reuven and Danny, Potok initiates us, with painful tenderness, into the universal sorrows and joys of the Jewish people. A must-read not only for every Christian, but for every American, and indeed for every lover of all that is good in literature.
I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.
A twofer! These companion novels tell the same small-town prodigal son story from two different points of view. Gilead tells it through the eyes of the town’s aging Congregationalist minister in a series of letters to the young child of his winter, who won’t grow up to read them until after his death. Home tells it through the eyes of a sister caught in the great gulf between a fading father and a bitter son. Gilead should properly be read first, although its initially slow-burning pace may challenge readers until the story’s grip begins to tighten. However, those who commit to the story will find that it drops its revelations like a depth-charge—quietly and devastatingly. Home perhaps does not quite rise to the same heights but is a more than worthy companion piece. On a note of pure style, Robinson’s versatility dazzles as she pivots from deeply introspective first-person reflections in Gilead to a lean, clean, almost play-like approach in Home. With a consummate eye for comedy and tragedy alike, she takes her characters to the bleeding edge of pain, only to tend their wounds with a humanity that can’t be adequately summed up secondhand. It must be experienced.
Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave — now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.
Like Robinson, Enger is a relative newcomer in the American Protestant school. This, his first novel, is justifiably his most popular (though his others are also worthy). First-person narrator Reuben Land wastes no time casting his spell as he spins out the yarn of his fugitive brother and miracle-working father from such stuff as legends are made on. Equal parts crime drama, Western bildungsroman, and fantasy, it hooks the reader from page one and never lets go. Enger has unfortunately been ill-served by copy-writers who sometimes present his work on the flap as if it’s heart-warming or cozy. It is neither. While he is a deeply humane writer, and while his characters are very warm and vivid, he is not “safe.” His storyworld is full of unexpected corner turns, startling insights into human nature, and evil figures shifting in the shadows. His exploration of miracles, typically the purview of the Catholic novel, is never what the reader expects it to be, but always profound. One for the canon.
Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible—that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection.
Speaking of Catholic novels, this one is perhaps the strangest, but one of the most celebrated, with good reason. It’s sometimes classified as sci-fi but properly belongs in the realm of futuristic dystopia. It recently turned sixty last year, but it has lost none of its uncanny prescience and none of its power to illuminate the sanctity of the human individual in a world where life is cheap, and growing cheaper. It is grimly hopeful, if that juxtaposition is possible to conceive. If it’s not, all I can say is read the book. For a fuller treatment, see my review in The Critic Magazine earlier this year.