Reviewed by Philip Zaleski
Some writers capture national headlines; others capture local hearts. This observation was brought delightfully home to me a few months ago, when I dropped a small pile of books on the checkout desk at my neighborhood public library. The librarian working the computer screen, a small, quiet woman of monastic disposition, usually goes about her chores without uttering a word. This time, however, she accepted my stack, glanced at the top book, and burst into a smile broad enough to launch a moon rocket. "Jon Hassler!" she yelped. The smiled widened as she saw that, in fact, my entire selection that day consisted of Hassler novels. "Isn't he just great!" she said. "I wish there were more like him. A writer that makes you glad to be alive."
Who, you might wonder, is this man who gladdens the hearts of young librarians, middle-aged professors, and, I am told, droves of retirees? The author of seven novels, beginning in 1977 with Staggerford (the imaginary Minnesota town where most of his stories unfold), Hassler is a writer-in-residence and English teacher at St. John's University, Minnesota. In a recent interview, he confesses that the writing takes precedence: "My teaching is always in the late afternoon or evening. The students get me when my mind is shot!" a decision that even his students must applaud considering the literary fruit that results, lately in his newest novel, Dear James.
Dear James brings back characters from Hassler's earlier ventures, most notably Miss Agatha McGee, the elementary school principal who loomed so large in Staggerford and A Green Journey (1985). Agatha, now seventy, radiates that quality that used to be called "spine": moral rectitude, dogged courage, and a trap- door mind fused into a backbone strong enough to shoulder the problems of half of Staggerford. She has her faults, too; having "always striven to be predictable," she finds herself adrift after the closing of her beloved St. Isidore's Elementary, an event symptomatic, in her worried eyes, of the shutting down of Christendom. Around Agatha's moral axis revolve, frequently in erratic orbit, the members of Staggerford's closely knit Catholic community: French Lopat, the Vietnam vet who scratches out a living as a fake Indian for the tourist trade; Lillian, Agatha's best friend, who gets her news from supermarket tabloids; Imogene, Lillian's daughter, a liar and backstabber; Sister Judith, a New Age nun who imagines the Creation as God laying a giant egg.
In this constellation of superbly drawn comic characters, the brightest star is the one farthest away: Father James O'Hannon, an Irish parish priest in Ballybegs, Ireland, with whom Agatha has carried on a correspondence blossoming into platonic love for years. Thus the salutation of the title; its irony lies in James' failure, for the first several years of their relationship, to inform Agatha of his clerical status. After she discovered the truth during their only face-to-face encounter (a debacle recounted in A Green Journey) the correspondence entered a new phase. As Dear James opens, Agatha continues to write long, revelatory letters to James, and then instantly tears them up. Meanwhile, James' undammed stream of letters to her stagnates in her desk.
Despite their estrangement, Agatha thinks constantly of James, and he of her. Their relationship is platonic in more than the conventional sense; these two traditionalists share a respect for ideas and a belief in Ideas, even in the Logos. Similarly, their correspondence is more than epistolary; their lives run along parallel tracks, in religion, intellect, and morals. The joy of the book lies in watching these lines converge into a happy ending despite the obstacles of age, location, and vocation. Before this dignified conclusion, however, Agatha and James must not only reconcile with one another, but atone for the past by surrendering a grudge: he against the British who killed his father sixty years ago; she against Imogene, the acid-tongued gossip who makes public her correspondence with James. In local communities, Hassler suggests, ancient truths abide: words retain their power to save or ruin lives, good and evil can yet be distinguished, people remain accountable for their acts, and sin, penance, and absolution are still valid coin of the realm.
Remarkably this is where Hassler parts company with almost all other American novelists religion is the means whereby these small-town transformations take place. In Dear James, the catalyst is not only the teachings of the Church but its sacred places as well. Agatha and James heal their breach in the Vatican (she is there on a New Year's tour of Italy), a small town that is a universal city. They deepen their accord in Assisi, another small town whose essence Hassler captures as well as any writer before him. Most strikingly of all, James renews his priestly mission during a papal audience at the Vatican. The critical moment comes when John Paul II, working his way down the center aisle, halts in front of James (who is standing on a chair for a better view), gazes into his eyes for "a full five seconds," and then gestures him forward.
James lowered himself carefully to the floor, and the crowd made room for him at the barrier. John Paul stepped forward, took James' face in his hands, turned it to the left and spoke briefly into his ear. Then he bent forward and touched his forehead to James' forehead, his hands still cupping James' face like a precious vessel. Then he moved on.
To find out what the Pope whispered, read the book. Suffice it here to repeat Agatha's assessment that "we've just witnessed a miracle," not in the sense of an impossible happening, but in the sense of a revelation of the eternal sacred moral order in the temporal fallen human order.
These Staggerfordian trials and redemptions add up to more than a series of Sunday School lessons. One feels a great moral force surging through this novel, a sense that lives do indeed matter, that God oversees the comedy and that fiction is the right means to get this message across. As James puts it, "Stories can move people, Agatha. I learned that in the pulpit. You can preach till the cows come home and not awaken a single soul, but the right story, well told, goes straight to the heart." It brings to mind a passage from John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, an important, vilified, and now forgotten book of the 1970s. "The traditional view," Gardner writes, "is that art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not to debase it. It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us."
Gardner's definition of traditional art describes perfectly Hassler's novels: creations as admirable for their benevolence as for their architecture. Here is an author who embraces every character his imagination conjures up, whether heroine, fool, heretic, or shrew. He is fulfilling Chekhov's dictum that "it is the writer's business not to accuse and not to prosecute, but to champion the guilty, once they are condemned and suffer punishment." Agatha, James, and nearly all of Hassler's figures suffer chastisement or worse for their failures, and nearly all are championed in this splendid work, testimony to God's tender mercies.