California Catholics

Maile Meloy's first novel uses gaudy old-time religion to string together a sweeping family narrative

American Catholicism was once so scarlet with absolutes and certainties that glamorous converts would fall on their knees before Bishop Sheen, while intellectually rebellious communicants, along with the sexually guilty, would flee in angry, soul-risking apostasy. To those of the faithful with long memories, the new Church, forty years into its age of reform, seems as blandly embracing as Unitarianism—less Hail Mary than hail-fellow-well-met, with its handshakes of peace toward the close of a mass that's more "participatory" than a PTA meeting.

The post-Vatican II Church has been as much a problem for fiction writers as for conservative bishops. Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy's engaging but slapdash first novel, is something of a case in point. The author gives us more than fifty years of the Santerre family, California Catholics, but clearly knows that the pre-1960s religious material—heart-in-mouth confessions; fervent collecting for the missions; ecstatic conventual retreats—is stronger, gaudier stuff than the modern, guitar-strumming version that eventually demoralized the Church's laity and, in a sort of reversal of the loaves and fishes, decimated its priesthood. Meloy wisely stays away from much consideration of the latter, though it has to be said that even her old-time religion is mostly a motif that helps to string four generations of Santerres into a narrative rosary for a novel that otherwise has the big familial concerns of commercial fiction on its mind.

Good-looking Teddy and Yvette marry during World War II and stay together, despite Teddy's over-the-top jealousy. He could always arouse himself sexually with fantasies of Yvette's infidelity, and her admission that she received a photographer's kiss while he was over in Korea leaves them to "[settle] into a life together that felt like a truce."

The couple's two daughters—obedient Margot and more rebellious Clarissa—serve as opposites in the manner of a parable, though it's the teenage Margot who winds up pregnant by Mr. Tucker, the dancing teacher who comes to give lessons at Sacred Heart High. Hustled off to sympathetic relatives in France, she gives birth, in 1959, to a boy named Jamie; her mother, the still youthful Yvette, manages through travel and trickery to pass the infant off—even to Teddy—as her own son. This smoldering family secret is able to remain one for as long as it does in part because of Margot's aversion to the baby; for years after his birth, even when the childlessness of her marriage appears to be permanent, she wants almost nothing to do with Jamie, whom his "sister" Clarissa loves much more demonstratively.

It's plausible that Jamie in his early thirties would push against emerging cracks in the cover-up in order to find out the truth. It's less believable that he would fall into a second bloodline-bending imbroglio, fathering a child by Clarissa's daughter, Abby. T. J., the baby born to them, is almost comically suggestive of the Trinity, uniting as he does the family's interchangeable generations.

One can't deny Meloy's enthusiasm for her material, even though some of her incidental inventions, such as Jamie's teenage bondage romance (he "had briefly been a Boy Scout" but "Gail was better at knots than he was") and the eventual grasp of a New Age Mr. Tucker to the extended-family bosom, inspire less than full credence. Meloy's good-heartedness toward most of her dramatis personae makes us smell the green tomatoes frying, and when Yvette says "I just love this family," the character seems to be delivering a promo.

Liars and Saints is not what I would have expected from the author of Half in Love, Meloy's fine short-story collection, published last year and just issued in paperback. The best of that book's pieces involve rural westerners, sometimes from the author's native Montana, with small-time financial and big-time romantic woes. The author is restrained in syntax and style, but unafraid of strong emotion, strong sadness. The stories often cover mere slices of time, and Meloy doesn't so much realize her material as nail it like a gymnast. She may display too much fondness for having the main story resonate against a parallel one that lurks within its pages, but not even such telltale craving for amplitude prepares a reader for the sprawling chronicle of the Santerres.

In Liars and Saints, Meloy has so much time and biology to keep track of that her crisp writing goes slack and generic in quite a number of places: "Yvette had explained that it was different when she was a little girl: everyone wanted to be a wife and a mother then ... The girls her daughters' age, who had so many options, didn't seem to be happy with any of them." The flat efficiency of so much of what's here—"It all seemed too far away, and too unreal"; "The discovery took her breath away"—would disappoint even those who didn't know that this author has done much, much better. Ironies get underlined in such a way that once we're told Clarissa's husband, Henry, is "so rocklike ... it seemed like he would never go away," we know for sure that he's out of here. The book sometimes feels like an elaborate set of notes for a novel Meloy intends to go back and actually write.

Certainly, there are fine touches ("The Navy packed everything in boxes and moved it to California, including three dead Honolulu cockroaches with wings"; in person "Ronald Reagan, the host of G. E. Theater ... seemed brighter than normal people, like a painting"), but such flowers can't get enough sun for all the shade being cast by the huge Santerre family tree. My sense of Meloy's talents makes me think she'd be wiser to write next about six months in Montana instead of fifty years in and out of California. She's a good writer, but I'm agnostic as to whether she's a novelist.