Books April 2006

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The seven years that have passed since the publication of Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, have served only to increase her reputation and her readership—and this lovely second novel confirms Strout as the possessor of an irresistibly companionable, peculiarly American voice: folksy, poetic, but always as precise as a shadow on a brilliant winter day. The interaction of eye and earth and blue sky is itself a recurring motif in Abide With Me, whose recently widowed protagonist, the Reverend Tyler Caskey, yearns for the numinous certainty (“The Feeling,” he calls it) once readily delivered to him by the heavens and fields and woods around West Annett, Maine—the small, gossip-infested town where we find him living, in 1959. As he labors over his sermons and reflects upon the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tyler discovers that his grief—and the wants of his two young daughters and his all-too-human flock—are beyond the slightly nitwitted mysticism that has hitherto sustained him as a cleric and as a man. His—and his community’s—passage to greater spiritual maturity is the tragicomic, often stormy stuff of this novel.

This kind of fictional project is, of course, threatened by gratuitousness. Countless books and movies return from Eisenhower’s America with the same news: it was a repressed, freaky time. But Tyler’s essential struggle—to retain a meaningful sense of wonder and truth when faced with the rise of therapeutic psychology and its mundane, overweening explications of the human—resembles a contemporary American cultural struggle against spiritual and intellectual debasement, the one we’re forced to wage against the likes of Jerry Springer and Pat Robertson and George W. Bush. Abide With Me, then, has this further resonance: it embodies humane qualities—excellence and conscientious exactness—that fortify us in our own version of its hero’s quest.

Joseph O’Neill is a novelist whose most recent book is Blood-Dark Track: A Family History.
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