So many of my favorite trash novelists — e.g., Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lawrence Block — have let me down this past year by forgetting their main job; instead of dashing off their usual unredeemed lurid entertainments, they each decided to mount the politically correct pulpit. I’m holding out hope that Jeffrey Deaver is still in the gutter, but I’m almost afraid to read his latest — The Broken Window — lest I find the quadraplegic detective, Lincoln Rhymes, being cured of his paralysis by a touch from St. Obama.
In the meantime, darn it, I’m forced to read real literature. I hate to have to work that hard, and hate also running the risk of actually being moved by a serious novel, but what’s a bookworm to do?
Fortunately, Ron Hansen’s newest book has just arrived: Exiles.
Last October I saw the film version of his The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s a great movie — watched it twice on the big screen during its too-short theatrical release, and it will be the first disc I buy when I get Blu-Ray — but what I like best about it is that it made me aware of this great novelist.
Immediately I snapped up Jesse James and others of Hansen’s works: Atticus, Hitler’s Niece, and Mariette in Ecstasy. All brilliant. Exiles tops them.
Each of Hansen’s novels (excepting Atticus) are fictionalized versions of actual lives and events. The life, in Exiles, is that of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the event is the wreck, in 1875, of the steamship The Deutschland. The newspaper accounts of the tragedy — 157 passengers and crew froze to death or drowned after the ship became stranded on a sandbar during a winter storm — deeply affected Hopkins, a Jesuit seminarian, who at the urging of a Superior, commemorated the catastrophe in his great ode The Wreck of the Deutschland.
The exiles of the title are five German nuns — none of whom survived the wreck — who were booted out of their country during Otto von Bismark’s kulturkampf against Catholics. Hopkins, too, is an exile of a sort, never achieving distinction in his vocation, nor recognition as a poet, and who ends up isolated and fatally ill in Dublin, Ireland which may as well have been Dublin, Ohio for the alienation he felt there. He even lives at a distance, as it were, from himself, supressing his most obvious talent, poetry, as an egocentric indulgence. By the time he figures out that his gift and vocation are one, typhoid occupies his full attention.
Now, because most of the main characters are in orders of one sort or another, the story necessarily involves religion — and the poem itself, included in an appendix, is a Christian version of a classical evocation of the gods — but it is never about religion. Beliefs inhere in the various protagonists, informing their actions. They aren’t shoehorned in by an author eager to improve his hapless readers. Hansen never preaches. I wish our contemporary potboiler writers would learn that trick.