The Oracles Fell Silent
Wiseblood Books, 2013
262 pp., $13.33
Gerald J. Russello
The Oracles Fell Silent
At the heart of Lee Oser's new novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, is a mystery. How did 1960s British rocker Johnny Donovan die? Ted Pop, his rival, friend, and bandmate in the rock sensation The Planets, was the only witness, and he has not spoken of it in the intervening decades. Whether Pop was responsible for Donovan's death has hung over the now-aged star ever since. The narrator, a low-level employee at a publishing company named Richard Bellman, is engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with Pop's daughter Lexie. Through her intercession, he is invited to meet her father (born Theodore Pappas, Jr., to an immigrant to the United Kingdom) and eventually becomes a hanger-on and memoirist over a summer in Southampton.
Oser's book comes at a turbulent time for the "Catholic novel," whose fate is again in the news. The current debate started about a year ago when Paul Elie wrote a cover story in the New York Times Book Review about the fate of the "Catholic" (and, by extension, religious) novel and its place in a larger culture hostile to faith. Elie found that "Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time as something between a dead language and a hangover." This argument is not exactly new; Richard Gilman had made a similar argument, also in the New York Times, thirty years ago, stating "that the religious spiritual novel is in some sense only a memory." As possibly the strongest exponent of mainstream secularism, one might almost think the Times has a vested interest in declaring the end of religiously inflected fiction.
There were energetic responses from Gregory Wolfe, the editor of Image, a journal that covers faith and the arts, among others. Wolfe argued that the religious literary imagination was still there, and in force, if one only knew where to look. Catholic writers may no longer be shouting, or writing in the wrenching language of a Flannery O'Connor, but they remain a "a still, small voice" writing about God and the world. The respected poet and writer Dana Gioia joined the argument in a long article in First Things, mostly taking Elie's side. He too lamented the decline of the Catholic literary imagination in America, which he traced to a combination of circumstances in the middle of the last century. "Stated simply," he writes, "the paradox is that, although Roman Catholicism constitutes the largest religious and cultural group in the United States, Catholicism currently enjoys almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting."
At one level, these arguments miss a larger cultural point. For surely part of the reason for the decline of the religious novel in a secular culture has to do with the decline of the novel in a non-reading culture. People do not read or care about novels in 2014 the way they may have in 1960 or 1950 (though how popular some of even the great Catholic novelists were is not self-evident; as J. F. Powers' recently published correspondence indicates, the sales of Morte D'Urban were tiny even after it won the National Book Award.). Literature's moment - in the sense of large-scale novels that form the basis of as common conversation about things that matter and are considered part of an educated person's self-culture - is almost completely past. The most influential religious artists today are not novelists. One can look to a Terrence Malick for an example of a religious-inspired artist, with a close (but very different) second in Mel Gibson, whose Passion of the Christ was a very personal encounter with the Christian mystery. And as writers like Mark Judge have noted, the larger popular culture is awash in confused notions of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. Elie, Wolfe, and Gioia focus primarily on literature, and mostly non-genre "literary" fiction at that. But although understandable, this necessarily is an incomplete picture. A creative young person with a literary bent these days is much more likely to write screenplays, create video games, or develop "apps" than write novels or go work in the publishing industry. Better perhaps to ask who is the contemporary Malcolm Muggeridge, the "man on the telly" who evangelized in the most common medium and was well-known outside religious audiences.
So, the audience for a religious novel, let alone one from a Catholic perspective, is diminished, and the culture is conflicted about religion and how it should be represented in art. Ironic knowingness seems to be acceptable, sincerity (even sincere doubting), not so much. The question facing those authors, however, is the same as it was for Walker Percy or O'Connor. Include too much religion in a novel and the story becomes preachy and uninteresting. But too little risks reducing religion to a plot element rather than an animating perspective.
In Oracles, Oser, a professor English at the College of the Holy Cross and a former musician, portrays a very secular setting but one in which his characters cannot quite escape religion. This is not O'Connor territory of a God-drenched South, but is fiction that might have broader appeal than the kind of literary fiction that Elie and company have been discussing. In this post-Boomer world (Oser was born in 1958), religion as an organizing principle is of little importance in the adult lives of the characters, existing at most as a kind of childhood memory. However, the Planets, like most of their generation, search repeatedly for "spiritual" experiences, which Oser cleverly reflects in extracts from their song lyrics at different stages in their career.
"You religious?" Pop asks Bellman at their first meeting, and Bellman answers, "I think so." Pop's comeback is dismissive: "You won't be when I'm finished with you." But that is an empty boast, as Ted, although not a believer, is on his own quest for redemption. But that quest is threatened by Oser's other characters, including voracious television reporters and unscrupulous gossip columnists, who are all after a bit of Pop's legacy, most of all to pin blame for Donovan's death. To provide a sharp contrast to the dissolute rockers, Oser introduces the character of "Baby Mo," a famous basketball player and convert to Islam, and his fiery imam, Omar D. Where a Catholic or evangelical would not be accepted in such circles, here—given the political and ethnic sensitivities of the Hamptons set—the followers of Islam are given a fairer hearing. Meanwhile a Catholic priest, a friend to Bellman who tries to utter the old pieties, is generally ignored by the sophisticates (Oser does include a funny set piece when Ted and his glam wife Joan accompany him to church).
Over the course of the summer, Bellman plumbs the mystery of Pop, and Donovan, with only mixed success, and his relationship with Lexie dissolves. Meanwhile, Bellman has to fend off the seductions of reporter Victoria Lamb, who wants a scoop, and Ginger Drake, who feels that with the death of Donovan, "the hopes of a generation died with him." Like Pop, Drake too is trapped by the past, but while Pop retreated into melancholy, Drake is the voice of the vengeful Boomers, thinking their own youth was the world's last golden age. In these characters, and others, such as Tom Bram, who meets an untimely demise here but in his youth was famous as kind of a pre-heavy metal rocker who dressed up as a vampire in his band The Swingin' Vampires, Oser limns the first generation of victims of the 1960s revolution as it limps towards retirement.
Given his setting among dissipated former rock stars and their coteries in the Hamptons, sexual entanglements would be obvious by their omission. This is a tricky aspect of modern life for a religious novelist who wishes to address and write about the modern secular world. It can be done, of course; some of the opening scenes Powers' Wheat that Springeth Green are surprisingly explicit. Oser handles a few such instances discretely, both in description and emphasis. But what comes through more is the way that his characters use religious language; it is not forced, and sounds, to my ear at least, as how people who need language to express serious things, but who don't actually believe, are nonetheless forced back on the language of faith.
The novel picks up speed toward the end: Ted must confront his past, and Bellman realizes he and Lexie are not meant to be together. As the action culminates, Oser incorporates a death or two and even a hurricane decimating the Hamptons coastline. Some of the dei ex machinis are a bit stretched, and Oser's overuse of similes—I caught three "likes" in one paragraph—can be distracting even when the similes are on point.
When Bellman finally understands how Donovan might have met his end, the insight comes wrapped in a reflection on choice, fate, and the unknown ways of God—a meditation that is both subtle and profound. If Oser is one of Wolfe's novelists writing in a still small voice, maybe because that's because it's in just such a voice that people typically speak of first and last things.
Perhaps it would make a good movie.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).
Copyright © 2014 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.