Tuesday, March 27, 2012

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)

1 comment:

Christie said...

It's true, dealing with tings like this, you can't please 'em all. Even J.R.R. Tolkien was incredibly critical of his friend C.S. Lewis's Narnia books (come on, how many people ADORE those books?) and Chesterton's and George McDonald's writings.

It's nice to know, though, that there's always room for growth.