May 1998By Will Hoyt
Will Hoyt, who has been well known to our readers as "the Berkeley carpenter," has moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where he and his wife have had a fifth child.
Strangers and Sojourners. By Michael D. O'Brien. Ignatius. 575 pages. $24.95 .
Shortly after Michael O'Brien's wonderful first novel, Father Elijah, appeared in 1996, Harper's magazine ran a predictably irritated article about the phenomenally successful (read lucrative) emergence of the Christian thriller as a new growth category for fiction. The reporter dubbed this kind of page-turner "dragon fiction" and then went on to assemble a list of defining characteristics: It portrays government and related institutions as actively malevolent forces, it includes large doses of didactic exegesis, it is sold largely in religious stores "along with large-print bibles arranged by theme," and it features full-fledged dragons. Bless me, I thought, practically rubbing my hands with glee, this article is really gathering steam. What will its author say when he trains his sights on Father Elijah? As it turned out, of course, the author steered elsewhere, choosing instead to engage pop-up demons like Frank Peretti (The Oath), Pat Robertson (The End of the Age), and Charles Colson of Watergate fame, but to this day I wish he had taken on Michael O'Brien, for when it comes to dragon fiction O'Brien is a skilled practitioner. Strangers and Sojourners, his current offering, practically runs it up like a flag.
It says on the dust jacket that Strangers and Sojourners is the tale of a highly educated Englishwoman named Anne who, after serving as a battlefield nurse during the Great War, emigrates to the rugged interior of British Columbia where she meets and marries an Irish trapper-homesteader, thereby embarking on a journey into the true interior of faith and hope and love. And that's all true. But there are other aspects to this book. A mere seven pages in we watch a knight on a white horse gallop up from a plain and "thrust his lance deep into the boiling rage of a huge serpent, which coiled about the hilt, vomited black blood, and after much thrashing and bellowing, lay still." Nearby, there is a gray-bearded old man in "swirling red robes" with "a black symbol like a claw or a spider" marked on his forehead. And it's not a one-time occurrence, either. Nine pages from the book's end we find ourselves in perilous conversation with "a shape that melted and flowed, a hybrid abomination of leopard and wolf, a coiled serpent, a bear." This scene gets resolved only when Anne's grandson (in a scene that readers of Father Elijah will recognize) desperately clutches a stone cross to his breast and raises it high. And when the novel's narrator talks about a failed effort at restoring ecologically damaged land, he says that the terrain had "fallen back into the hand of the serpent."
Is it any wonder, then, that upon keying in "Michael O'Brien" when accessing the Book Review Digest database, the screen reads "no entries"? It is not just the latest culture-war offensive that is responsible for this silence. It derives, as well, from the fact that (unlike other Christian writers such as Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor and Bernanos and even Dostoyevsky), O'Brien has broken the rules that hold for all works of fiction -- apostolic sorts notwithstanding -- if they aspire to earn the trust of the reader.
Yet you would be wrong to dismiss O'Brien. And not just because it is good to scandalize those of us who set ourselves up as arbiters of what Art is and isn't. No, the reason it would be wrong to look away from O'Brien's books is that there is steel in them. The prose is energetic and true, the characters live and breathe, and the insights (often profound) tend to be hard-won. Knowing as he does that daisies "no longer communicate real joy because for so long they have been used to express false joy," O'Brien's modus operandi is to name things anew, and the things he is trying to name (on one page sunlight glinting on a pine needle, on the next an act of sacrifice) are not small. Reading Strangers and Sojourners is a little like touring a mountain: You leave family behind, tend to buckbrush and scree and whistling marmots, enter a world of ice, silence, stars. When everything works, you find yourself gazing into the heart of things -- which is to say, emptiness and abandonment and loss.
When I first picked up this book, I had already been alerted to O'Brien's gifts as an artist. I had read Father Elijah and viewed a handful of his paintings -- icons, mostly, each of them glowing like a coal. Even so, when I started to read this book I had doubts about whether it would work. First, there is a dangerously heavy reliance on journals to flesh out character. Second, O'Brien shows an occasional weakness for pompous turns of phrase ("loyal subjects of the ecology of hope"). Third, O'Brien slips out of character as a narrator. During the first 70 pages of the novel, for instance, his voice is dry, educated, almost Jamesian: "Neither her mind nor her emotion had proven sufficient to restore her to a sense of interior unity." Then along comes a sentence like this: "He was a faller and a bucker by trade and sometimes stood duty at a steam donkey that yarded fir out of the bush to feed the mill." Huh? Inserting a sentence like that is equivalent to crossing T.S. Eliot with Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
Nevertheless O'Brien succeeds in winning you over. How? By smoothing out the inconsistencies? Hardly. Rather than gradually taking fewer risks, O'Brien takes more, and as a result he winds up creating a novel which in its very looseness and bagginess emulates Tolstoy at his unruly best.
In addition to the bell-on-the-gelding, stew-in-the-cooktent climate and the more rarefied atmosphere given off by cultured discussions of ideas -- two contexts you'd expect to find, given the bare bones of his plot -- O'Brien serves up a tale about a watchmaker from Cracow who talks of Stalinist Russia while cooking sausage under an icon of the Mother of God, notes from a hearing on a proposed hydro-electric plant, several inspired strings of Shakespearean epithets, and a short story about the assassination of Santa Claus. He's got a female Southern writer who smokes like Lillian Hellman and holds forth like Muddy Waters ("I got my Masters in Human Suffering, I earned a thousand credits on a thousand sleepless nights. I got a doctorate in Unrequited Love "), and enough Irish voices to raise the whole isle ("Yes, and not a word of it false"). All of it is lively. The story of watchmaker Jan Tarnowski wandering among the blue onion domes of an abandoned Russian monastery shines like a barrel fire; its warmth and the shelter it provides are sensed in direct proportion to the chill in which it's set.
It is possible that some readers -- perhaps as they suddenly find themselves tasting fermented cabbage and sipping vodka "like gasoline" -- will protest. "No," they will say. "Two minutes ago I was in an Irish pub. Isn't O'Brien just (to use one of his own felicitous phrases) spilling out the spice jar of our hard-won cultural legacies here? Writers just shouldn't spend capital this way." But then that reader will in all likelihood remember that, like it or not, ours is the age of world-beat, or that the Holocaust is indeed a necessary reference point now, and thus decide to keep reading. A few pages down the line he will meet a self-described "corn-pone crosspatch with cosmic leanings" talking about how she knows, she just knows that he's "gonna sell his soul," and at that point, I submit, the reader will just throw up his hands, laugh, and grant full assent.
The key to the novel is O'Brien's successful portrayal of Anne Delaney, his chief character. Anne and her husband, Stephen, are both gloriously realized; one measure of this novel's richness is that you cannot get either one of them in focus unless you see by the light of their union. But Anne is the one we follow more closely, and I suspect that she will live on in many a reader's heart. Anne's steadfast loyalty to truth and her gradual realization of the critical role powerlessness plays in its service run like deep water under the novel's various surface entertainments, redeeming the occasionally contrived aspects of the plot. It's a song, really -- a song of ice breaking up in spring -- and it sounds again and again, always in a slightly different form, along the entire length of the novel. Part of the fascination in hearing it is the fact that the score is there in full from the very beginning, well before Anne grows conscious of its shape.
I have heard it said that in order for a novelist to succeed he has to confine himself to psychology or the economy of grace and free will rather than history -- that the minute a writer attempts to conform the shape of a character's life to a predetermined narrative structure the game is up. And there is some truth to this, especially in those instances when an author rigidly refuses to adjust plot as his characters grow. But you could also say with no less certainty that because there always is an end toward which characters turn out to have been moving, the novelist's principal job is simply to catch view of that end and then free his characters so that they can move toward it. Isn't that what Sophocles does? I don't think Oedipus Rex could be said not to be about history. Or War and Peace, for that matter. In any case, one of the real merits of Strangers and Sojourners is the way it demonstrates this interplay between free will and destiny. Through the deft use of dreams, foreshadowings, and patterns nested within still larger patterns, O'Brien enables the reader to experience personal history as the slow coming-into-focus of something that has been present from the very start, and to experience our common end as a kind of ninth-month ripeness, or in-gathering of previously scattered leaves.
This gets us back to where we started -- namely, the somewhat scandalous apocalyptic aspect to Strangers and Sojourners. Let there be no doubt: This book has the end of the world written all over it. "You are the children of the last days," crazy Fyodor calls up to Jan Tarnowski and his fellow prisoners as they travel by boxcar across the Russian steppes. "You don't know who you are!" he warns, and author O'Brien gives these words full weight. Indeed, we are told inside the back cover that Strangers and Sojourners is the second of a whole six-part series of novels about the Götterdämmerung and its consequences, and O'Brien himself, bursting onto the literary scene as he currently is after 20 years of "silence" as a painter, bears not a little resemblance to Fr. Elijah, the priest in the book by the same name, who is called out of the obscurity of Carmel's dark night to meet the Antichrist head-on. But the real sense in which Strangers and Sojourners is apocalyptic doesn't have all that much to do, ultimately, with theme or real-life context. Rather, it has to do with its genuinely prophetic character -- that is, the way it functions as a place where beginnings and middles and ends inform one another and glow forth as one.
Midway through Strangers and Sojourners the Polish watchmaker Jan Tarnowski builds a ramshackle contraption some 30 feet high. It looks (I think) like an old Dutch windmill but instead of fitting it out with sails he installs trumpets and a giant bell. He calls it an "enduvdevorldkluk" and its purpose is to tell everybody that the end of time is near. Well, O'Brien's books are like peals from that clock. First Father Elijah, now Strangers and Sojourners -- with each book O'Brien appears to be sending out into the world a great lasting peal of lastness, a word, a signal that the time is not just late but pregnant and ripe, that the kingdom of meaning is really and truly at hand. More than anyone else now writing, Michael O'Brien has made this kind of end-sense his special province, and I look forward very much to hearing his other four novels "sound."