Tuesday, March 27, 2012

St. Austin Review on BLEEDER

The St. Austin Review, a classy, Catholic journal of the fine arts, just reviewed BLEEDER. Here it is:

John Desjarlais
Sophia Institute Press, 2009
272 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-93318-456-2
Reviewed by Dena Hunt

A widowed classics professor has been wounded by gunshots while trying to break up a fight between two students. He takes a leave of absence and goes to his brother’s hunting cabin in rural River Falls, Illinois, to recover and to write a book on Aristotle. There, by apparent accident, he meets a priest in a bookstore. Through a shared interest in the classics, they become friends. There is little else to draw them together: the professor is a non-Catholic and the priest is not just a local associate pastor, but a reputed stigmatic with healing powers. Then, suddenly and quite dramatically, the priest bleeds to death on the steps of the altar on Good Friday during the rite of Veneration of the Cross. When an inquest reveals the real cause of death, suspicion falls on the professor.

Bleeder is John Desjarlais’s first novel since Relics, published some years ago and now in its second printing. Readers familiar with Relics may be surprised by the author’s shift from historical adventure to contemporary mystery, but the departure does not lie in a shift in genre alone. Although, perhaps like many others, I enjoyed the amazing depth of historical research in Desjarlais’s first books, I must admit that in this new genre, we see a style far more mature, even innovative, and a much more subtle hand in characterization.

The character of Reed Stubblefield is an unlikely hero, suffering from chronic pain in his hip due to the injury. He uses a cane, performs exercises prescribed by his physical therapist, and takes a potent anti-depressant to control panic seizures and breathing difficulties. At the slightest provocation, he is afflicted with flashback memories of the long illness of his beloved wife of twenty years, who died of leukemia. Life is not easy for Stubblefield; he has problems with his insurance company, problems with his teaching schedule—one can forgive him if he seems a bit self-absorbed at times. He does not even have the Presbyterian faith he once had to sustain him, having allowed it to lapse rather like a magazine subscription that, in his painful attentiveness to his wife’s suffering, he somehow forgot to renew. It’s not that he is angry with God for allowing his wife to suffer and die. He’s not so dramatic as that; besides, one has the feeling that his already over-taxed emotional state could hardly afford serious anger. On the contrary, he seems a very nice, very sad, ordinary man, with whom every reader has something or other in common. Desjarlais’s characterization of Stubblefield is one of the novel’s best features.
But it is the highly textured first-person narration that merits the most attention. Internal monologue is smoothly woven into external events, drawing the reader into the direct experience of the narrator, even while those events are often interrupted by a re-living of painful memories of his wife’s suffering and death and the shooting incident. The interruptions are remarkably seamless, causing no confusion or irritation for the reader, even though their appearance is sudden and unannounced—just as real-life painful memories always are. But add to that the voice of Aristotle, Stubblefield’s constant mental companion, interjecting his own frequent italicized observations, and the result is a multi-layered narration that goes beyond standard stream-of-consciousness. Desjarlais accomplishes this feat with such ease and polish that the reader barely notices it.

What the reader does notice immediately is the descriptive prose, crisp and original, beginning without preamble on the first page: “The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow lying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face.” The description alone is a recurring delight, and when it is combined with the unusual access to the narrator’s consciousness, the result is an extraordinarily experiential read.

If the novel has a flaw, it’s in the plot structure of the denouement following the death of the priest. Until that point, the pace has been steady, while tension mounts in anticipation of the tragedy. After that point, however, direction seems obscure. News coverage of the event is quoted in its entirety for three pages, though the article provides only information that has already been revealed. Fewer than ten pages later, the entire police report is quoted, for five full pages—again providing no new information for the reader. Such insertions seem to have a kind of scrapbook effect for the author but add nothing to the story for the reader. When the inquest is scheduled for three weeks later, the three weeks simply disappear from the story, not only a radical departure from the steady pace of daily events up to that point, but also inexplicable, since we leave the hero’s brother lying in the intensive care unit of the hospital, following a near-fatal traffic accident.

Despite the difficulties with plot in the second half, Bleeder delivers well on its promise as a mystery novel. It keeps the reader trying to guess whodunit, just as a good mystery should; and, as the better representatives of its kind do, it also provides an ending of suspense and real surprise—which I will not spoil for readers by revealing. Any fan of mysteries would enjoy this novel, but for those who also enjoy reading the prose of a master craftsman, I would recommend it even more highly.

Dena Hunt lives in Georgia. Retired from teaching at Valdosta State University, she is working on her second novel.

(image: prototype cover for BLEEDER)

St Austin Review on VIPER

The St. Austin Review is a classy, Catholic journal of the fine arts. Here's their March/April issue review of VIPER (followed by a brief comment or two by me):

By John Desjarlais
238 pp., $14.95
Sophia Institute Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-933184-80-7
Reviewed by Katie St. Hilaire

Sophia Institute Press’s Imagio Catholic Fiction series—the publisher of John Desjarlais’s Viper—was founded in response to John Paul II’s call for renewal among Catholic artists. As noted within the book, the mission of the Imagio Catholic Fiction series is to publish books by authors who are conscious of the “precious gift and responsibility” of being the “image of God the Creator”. These books must be “grounded in a Catholic sensibility . . . [presenting] a moral universe in which God is real and active and in which virtue leads to happiness (if not always success) and sin to death.” The goal of Sophia Institute Press is thus to “[provide] Catholic families a haven from the nihilism and prurience of the world’s corrupted art.” These books are intended to do as John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists” commanded—to convey truth through image.

In his Letter, John Paul II called “for a renewed ‘epiphany’ of beauty in our time” in order to “make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.” Especially conscious of the widespread disconnect between art and faith that has surfaced in modern times, the late pontiff challenged artists to bring the immaterial world of faith into the sensible realm via the medium of beauty and image. As an image of God the Creator, the artist’s inventions should reflect the work of God in creation, with His glory and majesty. Artists, therefore, have a unique role within the Church. Even if their work is not explicitly religious, it must in some way reflect the mystery of the Incarnation, in which the invisible Word is made flesh, and truth made visible. John Paul II’s message in the Letter might be summarized as follows: artists have an obligation to communicate truth through beauty.

This prelude provides an important standard by which to evaluate the success of this book. The claim that Viper is written with a Catholic sensibility of truth, morality, and purity is made within the pages of the book itself, and so it is impossible not to assess the book in terms of this claim. Working to create such a piece of art is no small endeavor, and as such is highly commendable. It is greatly to be wished that more artists would follow Desjarlais’s example in this respect. However, there are times in which it might be said, the more worthy the task, the more difficult its execution—and this is one of them. The ability to create fiction which conveys truth and yet is not homiletic, a story with its own integrity and yet incarnational as well, is a rare gift. It should not come as a surprise, then, that Desjarlais falls somewhat short of the mark.
Viper’s heroine is the beautiful, fearless Selena De La Cruz, an ex-cop with extraordinary mechanical abilities and a past. Her boyfriend, who, in his sole appearance in the book is shut out of it again for his own protection, is an uninteresting side-character who will need to be prepared to relinquish the proverbial pants in the relationship. Intent upon pursuing justice in the drug war after a beloved brother’s life was claimed by drugs, Selena, though retired into insurance work, cannot resist rejoining the force when she hears of an old rival’s resurfacing. “The Snake” is a deadly enemy, and he has threatened to kill her—that is, after he finishes off a list of nine other names. But his m.o. is strangely altered from the old days, and Selena senses something strange. Desjarlais dabbles in the supernatural in crafting his mystery thriller, playing off of the similarities between the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Aztec goddess Lady Death.

The book is worthwhile in many respects. It provides an immersion in Latino culture, an opportunity to learn about Aztec beliefs, and a positive perspective on Catholicism and reconciliation. It is an entertaining and thrilling read that is hard to put down.

There are some objections, however, which cannot be ignored. The foremost of these is that Viper contains some breaches of verisimilitude and weaknesses in plot structure. In order to be considered art or literature, fiction must be believable, credible. When the reader is unable to reconcile elements of the plot with his understanding of reality, the book crumbles, as any “willing suspension of disbelief” becomes impossible. An example of this problem is Desjarlais’ casual use of fictional Marian apparitions as a plot vehicle, the depictions of which are out of keeping with true, approved apparitions. While imaginative, this plot device may be confusing to non-Catholics or unschooled readers. These problems put the novel more in the category of entertainment than art.

Other minor objections also present themselves. The book includes a few similes which, though undoubtedly original, are such that they decrease the overall quality of the writing. Two of these, by way of example, are “He glanced around, furtive as a finch in a neighborhood known for its cats”, and “warmth washed over her like a summer breaker on the beach at Acapulco”. Finally, there are some lewd references which would be inappropriate for young readers.

While I once again highly commend the effort of producing Catholic art and quality fiction, I cannot give the book my unqualified recommendation. It is a fascinating mystery and a fun read, with Catholic themes and more substance than your average best-seller. However, in reference to John Paul II’s standards for Catholic art, we may say that some of the harmony and integrity perquisite to beauty is lacking, which in turn limits the work’s ability to convey truth.

Katie St. Hilaire is a graduate of Ave Maria University, where she obtained a B.A. in literature with a minor in philosophy.

OK, everyone is entitled to an opinion and I appreciate the intelligent forthrightness of Ms. St. Hilaire's evaluation. I concede that Viper is not on a par with, say, Hillary Waugh or Dante. But sheesh, like Graham Green, I make a distinction between literary fiction and (what he called) "entertainments," and Viper - as genre detective fiction - is most definitely 'an entertainment.' It seems that it succeeds well on that score. My models in the field are Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler - not committed Christians, by any stretch, but great stylists.

I have no idea where the text is "lewd" - I'd never write something I wouldn't let my granddaughters read. And everyone knows I blush easily. I was extremely careful about this, especially since I was writing a female protagonist. Sophia Press is also highly protective of their reputation, and the editor certainly wouldn't allow anything 'lewd' to pass - not that there was anything in the first place. This comment really puzzled me. I wonder if it had something to do with the crime scenes? They ain't pretty. But I'm no fan of of 'gross' and even those scenes were treated in an understated manner - more sanitary than what you'd see on NCIS, Law And Order or CSI. There's certainly nothing sexually offensive, and no profanity.

As with all my novels, I conducted assiduous research, and I did so with Marian ("Blue Lady")apparitions. The descriptions are in complete keeping with the reported visits in Mejugorge (not yet approved, as indicated in the story) and Garabandal, Spain (also not yet approved). It was important to have 'not yet approved' visits as the models since the appearances of "The Blue Lady" in the book are obviously 'not yet approved' but under investigation.

I admit that the weaving of "The Blue Lady" idea into the main plot poses difficulties, but it was immensely important to the underlying themes. The question about her real identity is intimately connected to the Mexican-American backdrop: is she Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and the Americas, or the Aztec goddess of death (or perhaps "Saint Death", the female Mexican 'Grim Reaper')? "Guadalupe" comes from an Aztec phrase meaning 'she who crushes the snake,' and Mary is often depicted as crushing the serpent Satan under her foot (as prefigured in Genesis 3:15); Aztec female deities like Coatlicue are depicted wearing skirts of snakes, so there is a spiritual contest of sorts in the background between Mary the Mother of God and Coatlicue who is called 'the mother of gods', a deity whom the antagonist admires; and the drug dealer suspected of the serial killings is called "The Snake." There are other connections regarding Selena and the girl visionary Jacinta, but I'll stop here.

Pope John Paul The Great is one of my heroes, and I love his letter to artists. I'd like to think my literary short stories are in keeping with his high vision, and that my 'entertainments' - the novels - are the kinds of works that open people to the possibilities of faith and wonder. The books are not preachy on purpose, but I certainly can't help but produce mysteries that point to 'higher mysteries.'

(photo: Selena De La Cruz)