Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
Alice McDermott measures up to title ‘Catholic writer’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 20, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)

Book Reviews

Every now and then the question arises, “Where are the Catholic novelists of our time?” Do we have writers like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh writing today?

Recently, the poet Dana Gioia raised the question in his article “The Catholic Writer Today” in the December 2013 issue of the magazine First Things. Gregory Wolfe continued the discussion in the fall issue of Seattle’s Image magazine under the title “The Catholic Writer, Then and Now.”

In her new novel, Someone, Alice McDermott is both an Irish-American writer and a Catholic writer. (The publisher, in hardcover, is Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with a list price of $25.) Her main character, Marie, tells her life story in the first person, a life which is pretty ordinary over a period of 70 years, going back and forward in time. In beautiful gem-like prose McDermott mixes the life of Irish immigrants starting in the 1920s with occasional moments of Catholic belief and life.

When she is 7 years old, Marie’s father has her go for a walk with him each night, down to the neighborhood speakeasy, where she waits outside. Her older brother, Gabe, does become a priest but fairly early on leaves the priesthood. His reasons are unclear as he says he needs to care for his sister and mother after the death of his father.

But throughout the book there are moments of faith or a lack thereof. Marie eventually works as a greeter and comforter at the local mortuary. There she looks in on the owner’s aged mother upstairs as she visits with nuns and friends from the Brooklyn neighborhood who chat and gossip about the deceased down below.

Life and death are issues from the beginning of the novel until the end. There is a general emphasis on compassion and respect for human weakness and failure. One beautiful scene using the Scripture in a lively discussion centers on the parable of Jesus where he moistens the soil with saliva to heal a blind man who doesn’t need to express his belief to be healed.

When Marie is going through a very dangerous moment in childbirth, she doesn’t want the priest sent to anoint her to give her the sacrament. She wants her brother, no longer an active priest. And when her husband, Tom, speaks to Marie about some of the mystery of her brother’s life, especially after he has had a nervous breakdown, he says: “Who can know the heart of a man?” That line is sure close to Graham Greene’s famous line in The Heart of the Matter, when Father Rink, replying to a negative comment about a friend who had committed suicide, says, “The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.”

Sure, there are Catholic writers today. And Alice McDermott is one of the best.


A book club member recommended Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown and Co., hardcover, $30). But I couldn’t find it in Spokane. So when I was down at St. Patrick Parish in Walla Walla and exploring downtown, which brought memories back from the 1950s, I walked into what I once knew as “The Book Nook” and found three copies of the popular novel.

Well, for me to think of reading a 771 page novel at any point in my life is unusual. But I began the thriller, with the main character narrated by an adult Theo Decker, and kept being drawn back to it for two weeks. Many have already suggested that this gigantic novel is Dickensian in scope and story. It is a memorable adventure that includes a love story, a wonderful friendship, dysfunctional families and, near the end, finally, a sense of spirituality in the best sense of that word.

Pope Benedict once addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel. He said to them, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” The pope went on to quote Simone Weil, who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Donna Tartt’s ending of a long and complicated but always engaging novel well fits the pope’s words.

But I will admit, in this soaring and layered story there are lots of dark moments that may well be difficult for any reader. There is so much more about alcohol and drug addiction than I would ever want to know. But through the darkness is light.

The first 200 pages are totally engaging. Young 13-year-old Theo is with his mother on quick visit to an exhibit of Dutch paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City some years ago. A terrorist bomb goes off, killing, among others, Theo’s Mom, whom he deeply loves, and an older gentlemen who, before he dies in a strange way, tells Theo to pick up and save a painting of a goldfinch in the midst of the rubble. In the trauma of the event, Theo does as he is told and puts the small painting in his backpack. (“The Goldfinch” is a 17th century painting by a student of Rembrandt, named Fabrtius, who died in some kind of explosion the day after he finished the painting. The actual painting is at a museum in the Hague, the Netherlands.)

Events move rapidly. Since Theo’s Dad has left sometime earlier and his grandparents don’t want him, Theo ends up with an upscale Park Avenue family whose son, Andy, is a classmate of Theo’s. And Theo connects with an old furniture dealer who was the partner of the man who told him to take the painting. A young woman named Pippa, who Theo admired in the museum before the bombing and who survived it, lives in the Village with the furniture dealer.

But suddenly Theo’s alcoholic Dad appears with his girlfriend and takes him to Las Vegas, where he meets a Russian boy his own age named Boris. Boris is a lovable character throughout the novel, although he has a violent side that leads to the Russian Mafia.

Theo ends up back in New York City after his Dad’s death. The furniture dealer becomes his foster parent. Years go by and in his early 20s, Theo still has the painting. He has not turned it in to the authorities.

At about page 550 or so a major surprise takes place that allows the thriller aspect of the novel to run through a series of suspenseful events with twists and turns that end with some note of redemption.

Near the end of the novel Theo speaks in philosophical terms of what has happened and what he has learned. The author even uses sacramental language. I admit to struggling through some of the dark drug-use sections, but this literary author trapped me into a John Grisham-type plot with characters that are unforgettable. She got me to keep going the distance that I didn’t think I could still travel.

Movie Review

The locally filmed Different Drummers opened in Spokane at the AMC in January. The film’s co-writers and co-directors spent nine years working on getting the film made. Don Caron, well known from the earlier film The Basket, teamed up with Lyle Hatcher, who is one of the main characters in this true-life story from the 1960s.

The story takes place with 150 local young people at Farwell School in North Spokane. It is a story of friendship between Lyle Hatcher, played by Brayden Tucker of Spokane, and David Dahlke, played by Ethan Reed McKay of Portland.

Lyle is hyperactive and seen by some as a troublemaker. David is on the quiet side and is confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy. Lyle wants to help David run again and he pushes him through the pine forests of Spokane.

The boys work on a science project with all kinds of native bugs. They even find a Black Widow spider that escapes. Their friendship leads to talking about life and death and heaven.

The principal of Farwell is Miss O’Donnell (Colleen Carey) who feels Lyle needs medication to calm down. His folks try the medication for a while but Lyle becomes extremely quiet. As David tells Miss O’Donnell, “He doesn’t even want to chase butterflies anymore.”

When he is off his medication, Miss O’Donnell sees Lyle as disruptive to his class and the school. She tells Lyle’s parents that Sister Birgitta will take Lyle at St. Thomas More School.

There is an uplifting scene near the end of the film where Lyle pulls off a seemingly impossible event at the school talent show.

The standout actor is Brayden Tucker. Ethan Reed McKay does a fine job with the less showy role. Colleen Carey as the principal gives the film lots of conflict. But she comes across as a bit cartoonish and over-the-top, while everyone else is played as realistic.

The local extras may include someone you know. They are strongly present in the talent show scene and in a learning-to-dance number.

Different Drummers is a good family film in a day when family films are difficult to find. And it has extra meaning for Eastern Washington filmgoers.

With its issues of death and some dramatic scenes of the boys in danger, the film would not be good for small children.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)

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