Reading Conventions by Patrick McGintyThe Conventionalist

Earthly Saints in God's Country: Ignoring Easy Metaphors.

By Patrick McGinty

Angels by Denis Johnsoneveral years ago, I was reading Denis Johnson’s Angels on my lunch break when a friend walked by. She looked at the book, then at me. She was concerned.

"Has it happened?"

She’d no doubt seen that I’d only just started the novel. I mentioned a few of the plot points from the first thirty pages. She shook her head. What, I asked, could possibly happen so early in a novel to elicit these bug-eyes?

"You’ll know."

I did.

The scene that unfolds in a Chicago apartment occurs so early in Angels that it almost feels like a mistake, the literary equivalent of waking up in a roller coaster car. I remember thinking: This can’t possibly be happening. Not like this. Not this early. Five paragraphs on page 53 are not the novel’s last gruesome scene, but it is the section that springs to mind when you see the book in someone else’s hand. It’s hard to think of another scene in this or any book that is as unpredictable or uncomfortably violent from sentence to sentence.

If forced to choose a challenger, I’d probably go with Hicks’ death in Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. That Hicks dies at the end is expected. That his death takes the form of a fifteen-page monologue from an unraveling consciousness is not. A "death scene" is roughly 90% more likely to go awry than it is to transcend (if you doubt this, walk into a high school theater class on the first day of school and request twenty-five interpretations of death). It is tricky enough to make a character alive on the page, let alone make them alive enough for us to care about their passing. This is why such scenes are often blunt or quick or off-page. What we often read isn’t death but instead a character’s reaction to it. This is, after all, how we experience death as living, breathing human beings. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, someone you’ve shared your life’s moments with, what keeps you up at night is the not-knowing re: their final thoughts and sensations. It’s maddening. We are always a third party to the proverbial Reaper and it’s prey.

Stone is no third party here. He is not blunt or quick or off anything except perhaps his rocker. He stays in the dying mind of Hicks beyond the point of all reason. What he finds is that a body crossing the desert will have a consciousness crossing over all boundaries of logic. If Johnson nudges us awake in a roller coaster car, Stone refuses to let the ride end.

To quote these moments at length is to spoil them. I feel as though I’d be violating some tacit covenant struck on that bench: I was not told, and so I will not tell you. The two scenes are gory. They are unspeakable. They are beautiful. I’ve probably already said too much—which is why we’re going to talk about nuns.

Until recently, I’d completely forgotten that each novel features a decent dose of Christianity at the outset. This might seem like an impossible oversight, what with one book being called Angels, but religion isn’t exactly at top of mind when concluding each novel. On my last reread of Angels, I was expecting some sort of dark foreshadowing on the first page, maybe a "turn back!" sign. Instead, I found religion. Angels begins with Jamie boarding a bus headed east:

In the Oakland Greyhound all the people were dwarfs, and they pushed and shoved to get on the bus, even cutting in ahead of the two nuns, who were there first. The two nuns smiled sweetly at Miranda and Baby Ellen and played I-see-you behind their fingers when they’d taken their seats. But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic. The shorter nun carried a bright cut rose wrapped in her two hands.

Nothing too jarring, right? The bit about the "dwarfs" is maybe a bit odd. There’s concern about the makeup and the pants and the husband, but all of that is "sensed" by Jamie. The nuns aren’t doing anything to prompt it. They smile sweetly. They carry roses. These are normal nuns with normal lives, and Jamie goes on to wonder if the nuns prayed "each day after breakfast. Did they think to themselves, here I go, praying, and did they hold a portrait in their heads of God’s face with his white beard, nodding thoughtfully at their Latin? If praying was their job, then did they get any holidays?"

The religious figure at the outset of Dog Soldiers is portrayed with a similar "everydayness." Journalist John Converse is reading his mail on a park bench in Saigon when he strikes up a conversation with a woman who turns out to be a missionary. For much of the novel’s first nine pages they chat about their families and the weather and even the notion that Satan might be right there with them in Vietnam. Early in the conversation, the missionary asks:

            "Been here long?"
            "Eighteen months. And you. Have you been here long?"
            "Fourteen years."
            Converse was unable to conceal his horror.
            There were faded freckles in the gray skin under the lady’s eyes. She seemed to be laughing at him.
            "Don’t you like this country?"
            "Yes," Converse answered truthfully. "I do."
            "Where I make my home," she told Converse, "it’s not nearly so hot as it is here. We’ve got pine trees. People say it’s like northern California, but I’ve never been there."
            "That must be around Kontum."
            "South of there. Ngoc Linh Province."
            Converse had never been to Ngoc Linh Province; he knew very few people who had. He had flown over it, and from the air it looked thoroughly frightening, a deep green maze of iron-spine mountains. The clouds were full of rocks. No one went there, not even to bomb it, since the Green Berets had left.
            "We call it God’s country." the lady said. "It’s sort of a joke."

Knowing the violence that lays ahead, you can feed the beginnings of Angels and Dog Soldiers into your handy-dandy Christo-Mytho-Metaphoro Machine and receive any number of interpretations. For instance: religion is a lie. It will not save the nuns and missionary. They are naive wanderers in a violent world. Or: the nuns and missionary are the only sane, surviving voices in a violent world. After all, they aren’t the ones in that Chicago apartment. They aren’t the ones who die in the desert. Or: the nuns and missionary see the dangers ahead for each character and foretell of said dangers, the game of "I-see-you" not an innocent game with a child but a lightning-bolt-cum-thunderclap metaphor for an angry God spying on the derelict characters of His world.

I think that’s all hogwash.

My great aunt is a nun. She worked as an operator for Bell Atlantic until she was twenty, then decided that she could better help the many people she spoke with by entering the convent. She never missed any of my middle school band concerts. She gripes about the Steelers, particularly the offense. She is not a zany pulpiteer any more than Johnson or Stone’s characters are. These are women who sleep on buses. Who sit on park benches. Who make real, half-funny, self-deprecating jokes abut "God’s country." Read them as metaphors or symbols if you wish, but I can promise you: that’s the easy way out.

The far more frightening way to is accept just how real and normal that nun and missionary are. Johnson and Stone want you to buy into those saints on the first few pages. They want you to experience them as real characters in real scenes, unburdened by the goofy garb and stereotype that modern culture ascribes to such individuals. So go ahead and trust each writer. Buy into those saints. Then ask yourself this: If the saints are flesh and bone and of the same world we inhabit, what are we to make of the devils?

Patrick McGinty's fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. In the summer issue, he reviewed Jon McGregor's story collection This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You.