American Ghosts

David Plante’s fourteen novels include the Francoeur trilogy, the intense and compelling story of a working-class French-Canadian family in Rhode Island. The very titles of those three novels-The Family, The Woods, The Country-give a sense of the directness of Plante’s prose, in which plain words accumulate a stark power.

Plante’s memoir, American Ghosts, is no less powerful and no less stark. From the opening scene, which depicts the seven-year-old David’s night terrors, Plante places his readers deep in the heart of his family and his Catholic parish in Providence. David is the sixth of seven sons born to a quiet, nondemonstrative father and a social, articulate mother frustrated by the confines of home. Both parents are of French descent, but it is only the father, Plante says, who is “Canuck,” a “white nigger,” one-quarter Blackfoot Indian, and-most important-believer in a “Canuck God [who] became, in its dark invisibility, more and more a shadow lost within my mother’s superseding, all-too-bright, and knowing God.” The nighttime scene ends when the child David, who in his fear has beaten his knuckles bloody against the headboard, is asked to choose his mother or his father to sleep with him. He chooses his father: he chooses darkness, silence, authority cloaked in mystery.

In his parish school, nuns are the authority figures, also dark and mysterious. The young David has recurrent visions, triggered by his teacher, Mère Sainte Flore, of large dark “Mothers” (as he and his own mother refer to the nuns), one behind the other, extending into “vast darkness.” His teacher singles him out, but he cannot fathom her: she calls him aside but says nothing; she dresses him in costume, touches his neck, breathes his name. By the time he leaves home, first for Boston College and later to study abroad, he is ready to break through the boundaries, the darkness and mystery, of family and parish. He begins to question his old beliefs.

In Copenhagen, hearing the bells of the city ring out, the young David Plante has a sudden and total revelation- “There is no God”-and responds with “elation.” As he journeys to Spain and the sun, even the language of his memoir, which up to this point has been brooding and suggestive, lightens and quickens. He is going to visit Gloria, a singer he has met during his Atlantic crossing. The memoir dances forward in sexual anticipation, David nearly giddy with European freedom, but when he arrives, Gloria-who lives in a state of improvisation and disorder-mothers him instead of seducing him. Within a day (and a few brief memoir pages) Plante settles into a different sexual identity: he loses his virginity to another young man Gloria has brought home from a Barcelona nightclub. The sex scene is described with Plante’s characteristic directness and clarity, but then the language shifts again, pouring out a torrent of sensory images meant to suggest his new connection to his own body and, from that body outward, to the world. The giddy language in the aftermath of sex, not the sex itself, is the element that is almost shocking, as the reader realizes what psychological tension has been held in check up to this narrative point.

The writing and Plante’s spiritual journey take several more sharp turns as he comes into his adulthood and, eventually, a life partnership with his lover Nikos, who reintroduces him to religious practice though Orthodox Holy Week. In Athens, he savors “all the rich images of devotion,” but when he returns to his dying mother and his own American past, he is filled again with the sense that “nothing, absolutely nothing, was possible that might give meaning to this world.” He renews his devotion to the physical moment, to writing images that “exist so much in themselves that what they revealed would have to do with them and not with me.” His writing becomes obsessive, driven by anxiety and the desire to connect the dark terrors of his childhood, his shame at being Canuck, the spiritual yearnings of writers he loves (St. John of the Cross: “For the nearer the soul approaches to God, the blacker is the darkness which it feels”).

Enter Mary Gordon, the novelist and impatient Catholic who has written her own intense fictional accounts of spiritual torment. She becomes Plante’s closest friend and emerges in these pages as vivid as any character in a Gordon or Plante novel: generous, impulsive, funny, pestering. It is she who insists that Plante face his family, his past, his longing for God, his pent-up emotions, his-as she names it-“despair.” She travels with him back to his home parish, where they light candles under the crucifix. He sees his ancestors burdened with the weight of their physical suffering, and the crucified Christ, “in his suffering and in his death, the personification of a longing that would never, ever be realized. He was the Canuck son.”

Plante’s memoir ends with his reclamation of his ancestry, a journey that takes him for the first time in his life to Canada. As he researches his family story and imagines their own journeys, he simultaneously reclaims a dark faith hovering somewhere between negative theology and Zen practice. The austere prose we have come to expect from Plante’s novels is here, on a few occasions, supplanted by a nearly dizzy emotionalism—but let me hasten to add that this new explicitly emotional emphasis is also frequently brave and touching. In the final pages of American Ghosts, Plante grants us a vision of his ancestors, a communion of saints and American ghosts; and he ends with a prayer, in French and in English, that begins with the lines “Dans votre noir, Dieu....In your darkness, God.” In this new understanding of his dark heritage and his dark longings, he offers a strange, mysterious, and deeply hopeful sense of spiritual possibility. 

Published in the 2005-01-28 issue: 
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Valerie Sayers, Kenan Professor of English Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of The Age of Infidelity and Other Stories and six novels.

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