November 2008

The Blood-Red Crescent.  By Henry Garnett. Sophia Institute Press. 170 pages. $14.95.

Picture each of today's European Union nations fractured into tiny, chaotic mini-states fomenting internal suspicion and jealousy. Next, envision the instability of ever-changing alliances among equally shaky neighbors. Author Henry Garnett uses the opening pages of his historical novel The Blood-Red Crescent to refresh readers on comparable conditions in 1570 when Western civilization seemed poised for a dramatic demise. Catholic King Philip II ruled Spain and the Netherlands; Italy was a loose constellation of small, messy sovereignties; France was in tatters, gutted by internal strife. The Islamic Turks (Moors) had been defeated in Spain in 1568; however, many still clung to the coastal areas of the Mediterranean Sea, taking brutal swipes at inland populations. Catholic defenders had been conducting hit-and-miss operations against the trespassers for decades, but "fear of the Turk cast blight over fields and vineyards, and years of attacks by corsair pirates had taken their toll of men, women, and children so that the heart had gone out of the people." Muslims planned to conquer Europe by launching a fleet of oar-driven galleys from Constantinople, vanquishing Cyprus on the way to Rome. The situation prompt­ed Pope St. Pius V to call for a confederation of warriors — a Holy League of Catholics — to defend their quarrelsome continent. Nothing focuses minds or clarifies priorities like impending catastrophe.

Although originally published in 1960 for readers of all ages, this novel is far from simplistic. Garnett is fastidious in building the geopolitical vista and exposing the frustration of temporal and religious rulers weary of the failing defensive stance. Disparate leaders, in tardy recognition of the old adage that the best defense is often a good offense, were forced to unite. It is gratifying to note the author's skillful employ of English Catholics (scattered across the continent by persecution at home) as offensive defenders of the Faith. One of them, Barnabas Butter, considers the chronic problems in such an assorted assembly: "Now we are going into battle for the freedom of men. So the cross will stand over the churches. So the priests will stand in safety at the altars. When we have won, the old quarrels and jealousies will come to the top. But we shall have won."

Garnett's masterful subtlety in exposing life's acceleration into adulthood amazes. Teenagers, with little time to indulge the few vicarious thrills available, mature swiftly into grown-ups bound by duties and fealties critical to survival. Fourteen-year-old Guido Callatta becomes embroiled in the drama when his father, a wealthy Venetian glassmaker, builds a galley for the Holy League. Guido must accompany his mother, sister, and a servant to the safe haven of Rome, a month-long journey from Venice, before boarding his father's boat. Their risky rambles across Italy read like a Renaissance travelogue as they fight their way through ransacked villages and vineyards.

The fanciful idiom of fictional folk alongside factual figures immerses readers into the era's graceful courtesies and courtliness, long vanished from our modern world. Encounters with the charmer Don Miguel de Cervantes and young Cardinal Acquaviva (both real-life figures) commend Garnett's exquisite eye for detail. Intimate looks into a monastery near Rome offer penetrating revelations. No withdrawn, wilting monks abide within; they too prepare for battle as Br. Stanislaus, an old soldier, trains Guido in the use of the crossbow. Much character development lacks sufficient complexity, however, and the novel is peopled by more than a few stereotypes. Villains are resoundingly depraved, and there are no toads among our heroes; they are entirely spiffy, cheery, muscular, virtuous, and valiant.

As the Holy League gathers its ships at Messina, Sicily, to prepare for war in the eastern Mediterranean, the language grows rich with the jabber of sailors left too long at their leisure. Garnett's depictions chill the blood as sea battles fought with swords, crossbows, guns, and grappling hooks culminate in a maritime inferno, a true international incident of its time off the Greek and Albanian coasts. Guido finds himself anointed as our own embedded reporter aloft on one ship's mast, delivering blow-by-blow broadcasts of the bloody onslaught. The final barrage crowns a section of the novel that, once embarked upon, cannot be put down.

Marked by meticulous attention to detail and built upon an escalation of spiritual, economic, and mortal wounds mitigated by bold strokes, the book hums with faith, hope, optimism, and respect for life while thoroughly shredding the cloak of relativism that blights proper determinations of good and evil. In the 1960s The Blood-Red Crescent turned up the volume on a malevolent Eastern echo that seemed slightly out of range. Its signal now is a full-blown siren.

- Mary McWay Seaman



John: A Novel.  By Niall Williams. Bloomsbury USA. 288 pages. $24.

Irish writer Niall Williams has written a novel that bridges the literary gap between time and the timeless. His latest work, John: A Novel, is a stunning revelation that "God is both ‘enclosed' within the mystical soul, and he is the ‘enclosure' that the mystic enters spiritually."

"The question came to me out of the blue," the author writes. "What was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel?" Williams's answer has produced arguably the most important novel since Flannery O'Connor painfully scribbled her "grotesqueries" on the front porch at Andalusia.

The book is both stark and explicit, reminiscent of Hemingway in high dudgeon, and presents its story in what French critics describe as a mise en abime, a "casting into the abyss…successive, perhaps concentric, layers of space as analogous to the various strata of experience that are constitutive of mystical space."

The story begins on the bleak and barren isle of Patmos where the now ancient John the Apostle (son of Zebedee, brother of James) and a handful of his disciples have been exiled by the Roman Emperor Nerva. Christianity finds itself in reduced circumstances, its more vociferous advocates decorating the various Roman roadways throughout the empire, and its teachings competing with a plethora of demonic distortions.

John's disciples wait. He has not preached in a long time, he is blind and crippled with great age, cared for by the devoted Papias, his "Revelation" long since recorded by the scribe Prochorus. Their faith has defaulted into the promised return of Jesus Christ, and He has not appeared. One of John's younger followers, Matthias, begins the Gnostic heresy: "The Son of God would not play with children, would not learn the trade of carpentry. For what?… The truth is, Jesus was as you or I."

Williams has set his story at a time when the phenomenon of the "Christ event" is neither doctrine nor dogma, but rather an accounting of a recent experience, when reality is understood in the "fullness of Passion and resurrection." John is the living testament, the last of the disciples of Jesus Christ. He has loved and been loved by the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Yet, even now, with the scribes' ink barely dry on the pages of the Gospels, there rises the skeptic. Faith is immersed in doubt. The scribe Prochorus has fallen ill. John seeks his healing: "He prays in silence, moves slightly back and forth on the stool so its joints sing thinly. And still nothing happens. How often is it to be so? To the ten thousand prayers they pray these years on the island what answers come? No miracles attend them. No signs that they are cherished, or that the long suffering of their faith is considered, that their sacrifice is measured and in the hereafter will be rewarded."

Niall Williams's John: A Novel is not only art, in the sense of his mastery of prose, his formidable moral imagination, and his talents as a storyteller, but it is also an expression of his profound wisdom in understanding that our purpose as existent and created beings is to live in the love of the Creator.

- Robert C. Cheeks



Space Vulture.  By Gary Wolf and Archbishop John Myers. Tor Books. 336 pages. $24.95.

Space Vulture is the sort of work that produces a classic "What the heck?" response: A modern-day recreation of a pulp-fiction-era space opera written by the guy who created Roger Rabbit and the Archbishop of Newark? What's the world coming to?

The story behind the book is almost more interesting than the book itself. It turns out that authors Gary Wolf and Archbishop John Myers were childhood friends who loved comics and space operas, and both have kept up their friendship and interests over the years. Space Vulture is a bit of innocent fun produced from the Archbishop's guilty pleasures, and, given what some Catholic ecclesiastics have been up to these days as part of their guilty pleasures, it's something to be celebrated by contrast.

The story itself isn't a complicated one: Interplanetary small-time hood Gil Terry is arrested by the legendary Galactic Marshal, Captain Victor Corsaire, who takes him to the colony world of Verlinap for processing. While there, Verlinap is raided by Space Vulture, the most notorious criminal in the galaxy, who captures the colonists and plans to sell them into slavery. It's up to Captain Corsaire to rescue the colonists — in particular the pretty and resourceful widow Cali Russell, former chief administrator of the colony — and thwart Space Vulture in the process. While all this is going on, Cali's two young sons, Eliot and Regin, are also trying to rescue their mother with the "assistance" of professional no-goodnik Gil Terry. Will Captain Corsaire find Cali Russell? Will the two fall in love? Will Corsaire defeat the villainous Space Vulture? Will Eliot and Regin find their mother? Will Gil Terry prove to be a hood with a heart of gold? Will the shocking secret past of Terry and Corsaire be revealed?

Of course, if you've ever read a tale like this, you know the answer to all of these questions is "yes."

Is Space Vulture a great book? Not at all. But, gosh darn it, it's a swell romp, and it recreates its source material very faithfully. Captain Corsaire, the two-fisted hero, is a character of Lensman-like rectitude and resourcefulness, and he meets his match in Space Vulture, the galactic Napoleon of crime: a cape-twirling villain of genetic perfection and moral decrepitude. Cali Russell is appropriately plucky and her boys resourceful beyond their years. The only character who undergoes any real change is Gil Terry, who finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his criminal cynicism while being saddled with the care of two energetic boys; his moral rehabilitation is one of the main elements of the plot.

Which leaves the question: If it's co-authored by an Archbishop, is Space Vulture a Catholic book? Well, no. And yes. There isn't really anything explicitly Catholic in the book at all. But there are certainly a number of Catholic themes present. Cali and her boys are regular churchgoers who derive a lot of their pluck and fortitude from their faith. Space Vulture is a despicable villain because he has used a battery of artificial enhancements to acquire abilities beyond that of any other human or alien in the galaxy — since he is unmatched, he believes he is above normal morality and may do what he pleases. He also enslaves his followers through mind control, consciously depriving them of their free will, a quality he considers inefficient. By contrast, Captain Corsaire derives much of his strength through his moral code, which he follows faithfully, even when it puts him in danger. This goes beyond the typical space Western "refusal to draw on an unarmed man": Corsaire at one point refuses to "put someone out of their misery" because that isn't the sort of thing heroes do, and he pays a price for his kindness before he is vindicated. And so on. Thus, while Space Vulture isn't explicitly Catholic, it does faithfully reflect the values of an earlier time in American history, a time when Catholic values were shared to a greater degree by society-at-large. As such, it's one of those books written for adults, but perfectly safe for younger audiences as well.

Perhaps I'm analyzing too much, but I find myself wondering: In a time like ours, when the Church is seemingly the last partisan of the power of human reason, is it possible that she might come in time to be the last bastion of human heroism as well, defending a set of values that can result in the production of an old-fashioned work like Space Vulture, with innocence and without irony? To a generation that knows the term "pulp fiction" only as the title of an overrated and amoral film by Quentin Tarantino, a reminder that the best of pulp fiction once featured heroism and larger-than-life characters often standing alone against great evil in a corrupt universe (as Captain Corsaire must face down Space Vulture without the help of corrupt and ineffectual Star Patrol) can only be a good thing. Perhaps we shall see more from the good Archbishop and his plucky sidekick Wolf, since Space Vulture ends as works of its kind usually do, with plenty of room for a sequel. Or even a series.

After all, if a book's rear cover proclaims enthusiastic words of support from the likes of Gene Wolfe (a decorated Catholic sci-fi writer), Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J. (an astronomer at the Vatican observatory), and Stan Lee (creator of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four), what else can I do but join the chorus of praise?

Excelsior!

- Christopher Beiting





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