As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1994
by Martin Green
by James Carroll.
Houghton Mifflin, 422 pages,
The Dickensian form was widely practiced in the nineteenth century, often under the generic title "Mysteries" -- The Mysteries of Paris, or London, or another city. Such a novel presented a whole metropolis with all its social levels, including the criminal, and the hidden links between those levels were revealed by the plot. Very often the principal motive in such novels is vengeance: perhaps the most famous of all is The Count of Monte Cristo, which begins with a great act of treachery, one that is paid for on the largest scale through the rest of the book. The same is true of The City Below. Of course, Carroll follows the conventions of this century, not the nineteenth, in his explicit sex and violence. But essentially he has written a Mysteries of Boston (and of Washington with, say, Memorial Bridge , and of New York with, say, The Prince of Peace ).
In The City Below, James Carroll returns to the topic of Boston's history in the second half of this century, in some sense picking up where he left off in Mortal Friends (1978). The action again features violent and criminal conflict between the Irish and the Italians in Charlestown, a Boston working-class neighborhood.
Mortal Friends has by now sold a million copies, and Carroll has become one of the writers who shape our sense of ourselves. As we read his pages, we re-experience the events of recent history, which are often presented, as they are in this case, with the excitement usually accorded a great sports spectacle.
The City Below is divided into four sections with annalistic labels: 1960, 1968, 1975, 1984. Each section revolves either around a historical scene (in 1975 Senator Edward Kennedy's intervention in the Boston busing crisis, when he faced a dangerous mob) or around a plot event with close ties to history.
The plot follows the lives of two brothers, Terry and Nick Doyle, born in Charlestown. Terry, the elder, is destined for the priesthood, but he goes to Boston College in the 1960s and there hears the call of the Kennedy campaign instead -- choosing "the jaunty American masculinity of which Kennedy himself was the beau ideal." Then an attack of sexual guilt sends Terry into the seminary; but the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, forbidding artificial birth control, makes him refuse ordination at the last minute. He works for Senator Kennedy in Boston until the busing crisis erupts, and then goes into real estate, in its largest sense -- that of urban renewal.
Nick stays in Charlestown and ostensibly just runs the family flower business, but secretly he works for a dynasty of Italian waterfront bosses -- whom, all the time, he is plotting to ruin. The two brothers' lives do not merely run side by side, contrasting the spoiled priest with the mobster. They intertwine in convulsions of rivalrous love and hate. A great complexity of history and fiction is stitched together in literary patterns by, for instance, the series of flowers that runs through the book and the brothers' nicknames, Squire and Charlie. Their grandfather dubbed the younger his squire at a Knights of Columbus function, and in his violent and sinister way Nick remains chivalrously devoted to his family. As an afterthought the old man called the other grandson his chaplain. But even this ambivalent honor was undercut, because "chaplain" was heard as "Chaplin," and Terry is called Charlie in "affectionate" mockery.
A historical equivalent of those fictional motifs is the image of the Kennedy family, represented primarily by the three Kennedy brothers, and though Carroll does not hint at rivalries among them like those between the Doyle brothers, fraternity is of course the dominant theme of the novel. All the meanings of this very crowded canvas are organized by the exploration of what men feel for other men close to them, and how they express those feelings.
Both brothers marry, but each wife betrays her husband with his brother, and the marital experience is entered into the bookkeeping of the fraternal rivalry. There are many ways in which Carroll reminds us of that sequence of American novelists -- and those sequences of American history -- in which masculinity is the dominant theme.
He reminds us of, among others, the Norman Mailer of An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? We see this in the book's language: the dialogue is full of obscenities, and the narrative's central vocabulary is of the streets. We see it in the violently realistic but also symbolic action -- though Carroll surpasses Mailer in narrative suspense and plot ingenuity. Above all we see it in the feeling the brothers have for each other -- a blind, groping ambivalence that seems to come from a transgressive proximity.
ARROLL has become widely known in his adopted home town, Boston, as a writer on peace topics since, two years ago, he began a weekly column on the op-ed page of The Boston Globe. Before that he was best known as a writer of war stories -- one who fictionalized contemporary history, focusing on scenes of violence. On the acknowledgments pages of his novels he addresses those who have helped him as "Friends" or "Dear Friends," using the language of the peace movement; but as readers move into a story, they find themselves identifying with heroes who use the language of brute force, and who may be firing a gun or driving a jeep straight into a crowd of panic-stricken refugees.
It is a world of bombs and shrieks and sheets of flame that Carroll builds up around his readers. This is, of course, traversed by gleams of spiritual power and peace -- notably in The Prince of Peace. But the principal virtue practiced in most of the stories is physical courage, and peace-lovers who pick up the books looking for some escape from the world's violence will find that they have to breathe air full of the dust of explosions, the smells of cordite and blood.
The facts of Carroll's life, as given on his dust jackets, develop this contradiction. He is the son of an Air Force general, and spent his undergraduate summers working as a cryptoanalyst's aide at the FBI. But he entered the Paulist Order in 1963, was ordained a priest in 1969, and played a part in the peace movement. He left his order in 1975 and published his first novel, Madonna Red, a thriller about Irish terrorists in America, the following year.
As a writer, therefore, he is concerned with both war and peace, violence and nonviolence, and with each in turn more directly than most of his fellow writers. In his newspaper column he speaks as the conscience of his readers, attacking complacency about the situation in Bosnia or Haiti and about injustice in America. His liberal readers easily recognize an ally in him. But in his novels--in this instance in Firebird -- they are startled to find his heroes reciting the FBI slogan "Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity," telling each other that "virtue" has the same root as "virile," believing in the manly virtues. "In the army you tend to feel ashamed of virtue, but in the Bureau, well, we don't." There can be no doubt about Carroll's commitment to peace, but there may be some bewilderment about how he reconciles that commitment with other parts of his imaginative life. But that is because we have fatally limited ideas about peace.
F the two great teachers of nonviolence, Gandhi and Tolstoy, it would seem to be the second to whom we should compare Carroll. To say this is not to measure him against Tolstoy aesthetically; to juxtapose a contemporary novelist with Tolstoy is as awkward as to juxtapose a contemporary playwright with Shakespeare. But Tolstoy was a peace prophet who wrote novels, and some of his novels were about war -- first the Crimean War, and then Russia's 1812 war against Napoleon.
Making this connection helps us to understand Carroll's preoccupation, which, like Tolstoy's, is simultaneously with war and peace, violence and nonviolence. There was a split in Tolstoy's life, around 1881, after which he turned away from much of Russian society, including the army. But he, like Carroll, was deeply troubled by war even as he wrote about its heroes.
The conflict was partly a matter of heredity, in Tolstoy as in Carroll. Tolstoy described his family as belonging to Russia's military caste; his father and his older brother were army officers, and he himself when young volunteered to fight in the war in the Caucasus and the Crimean War.
Gandhi did not belong to India's military caste and, unlike Carroll and Tolstoy, never used the language of crude power, with its ugly tributaries of scatology, blasphemy, and pornography. He did, however, volunteer in the Boer War and the Zulu rebellion in South Africa, and in the Great War, for which he recruited soldiers in India. Moreover, throughout his career Gandhi addressed his message to soldiers, and urged his followers (most of whom were simply anti-military) to acquire the soldier's virtues, notably physical courage. Thus if we look at any wide survey of pacifists, Gandhi stands next to Tolstoy and Carroll, and apart from most others.
All three are concerned with soldiers and the military virtues as well as with the peaceable ones, and with a range of themes that connect violence with nonviolence -- themes that include force and suffering, courage and fear, domination and subservience. In Carroll's novels, as in Tolstoy's, these themes are dramatized repeatedly in the relations between men in great institutions -- such as the Roman Catholic Church, the FBI, and the Pentagon -- and ones in their criminal counterparts. They are embodied in men rather than women, and in the servants of institutions rather than in New Agers. (This last group plays an important part in Carroll's peace stories -- as do the equivalent social types in Tolstoy's -- but the figures with whom the reader is asked to identify are rooted in masculine social orthodoxies.)
The thematic polarity I just sketched in is very inclusive, but it nevertheless leaves out the moral and psychological material dominant in the great novels of love and marriage -- those written by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence. This other polarity ranges from love to hate, exploring personal relations, family affection, childbirth, the love of birds, beasts, and flowers, erotic beauty, sexual obsession, and so on. These are almost prescriptive topics for the novelist, as for other practitioners of art, and in fact art is itself another of the themes we sometimes find in that range.
We certainly find those themes in both Tolstoy and Carroll. In War and Peace the second term refers primarily to the themes of love, and Tolstoy is generally acknowledged as one of the great love-novelists. But what is important for our purposes here is that he is also one of the great war novelists.
Serious-minded, or literary, novelists, I am implying, tend to turn away from war and violence as a subject. But neat generalizations about writers are hard to make, and it would be better to sum up the serious readers that way, the serious critics and teachers -- who, of course, constitute "literature" by their activities, just as much as writers do by theirs. The critics' interpretations and commentaries tend to focus on the love and peace themes in novels -- which seem the natural subject matter for people of culture. And there are indeed many ways in which literature, and the other arts, are peaceful activities. But Tolstoy and Carroll are peace-lovers of another kind.
Y university library has one copy of one of Carroll's novels, whereas my town library has all his novels, and multiple copies of some of them. His novels regularly get enthusiastically reviewed in newspapers but not in the literary quarterlies. (Neglect does a writer much more damage than outright attack.) One can of course read this state of affairs as the expression of a literary judgment made against the quality of his work; but it is not very likely that the editors who send books out for review have actually read him. Their judgment goes against the sort of fiction he writes.
What sort is that? Besides what I have suggested, we can learn something from his titles: Supply of Heroes (1986), Prince of Peace, Mortal Friends, Family Trade (1982). Again, these are stories of men relating to one another as heroes and comrades and sons and fathers, involved in action plots of war, murder, espionage, riots, treachery, and command. Moreover, though Carroll uses many kinds of language, probably the dominant one is the rhetoric of judgment or advocacy. These are not the stories or the rhetoric men and women of letters favor today.
Tolstoy, of course, is to be found in my university library; but in his time he, too, was scorned by his country's intelligentsia. He was their ideological enemy ("politically incorrect" would have been just their sort of term), and War and Peace was condemned as a reactionary novel, celebrating patriotic war and the mindless Russian squirearchy. Moreover, Tolstoy, like Carroll, wrote about actual battles and put speeches into the mouths of actual generals, and ministers.
At their best, Carroll's novels are extremely powerful and moving. The Prince of Peace, the most remarkable of all of them, is about the Vietnam War aspect of the 1960s. Michael Maguire, the war-hero of The Prince of Peace, is a priest like the Berrigan brothers, and his principal antagonist is Cardinal Spellman. Directing Maguire's vocation is his conscience: "that cauldron into which he poured his considerable knowledge of killing and torture and despair and loneliness." Memorial Bridge is again about the 1960s. The two main figures are a father, who first worked in the stockyards of Chicago and then was hired by the FBI, and his son, who became an anti-war protester.
Such novels are hard for members of the intelligentsia nowadays to take seriously -- which shows us the split between different reading publics. Contemporary taste, at the level of the intelligentsia, focuses on the marginalized groups in modern America -- Native Americans and African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and feminists. This is an aesthetic that honors the experience of those marginalized groups--honors it preferably by the writers' identifying themselves with that experience, but at least by the depiction of it. There are such figures, and stories of sexual love, in all of Carroll's novels; but he writes most of the time, and best, about male bonding between heterosexuals who are all men of pride and force.
His central characters are men not primarily of the East Coast elite or the Ivy League colleges but Irish Catholics of the Kennedy generation, clearly ready to inherit the privileges and powers of their elders. The growing strength of that group within America is or was analogous to the power of America on the world scene. In the minds of serious readers, Carroll's choice of such heroes seems to betray (this is quite unjust, but feelings of this kind seem to be inevitable) a lack of interest in or sympathy with the other groups. Carroll's imagination speaks a language too close to front-page images of power to be acceptable so far to members of the intelligentsia.
The intelligentsia will continue to serve the cause of peace in their own, quite different ways, some of which will probably seem more logical and harmonious than Carroll's. But literary history suggests that the paradoxical split in Carroll is more than a personal paradox or self-contradiction. It is one of the recurrent forms in which our sense of the way things are, and our hope that they can be made different, lock together.
Illustration by Andrea Ventura
Copyright © 1994, Martin Green. All rights reserved.
Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1994; The FBI and Leo Tolstoy; Volume 274, No. 1; pages 100-106.