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'A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion'

Ron Hansens latest novel is a real page-turner. Want another clich? I couldnt put it down. But I also couldnt decide if it is really a novel or not. Hansen (Santa Clara University) has divided his work pretty much between re-imagining historical characters (Jesse James, Hopkins, and now the notorious Double Indemnity duo of 1920s New York, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray), and finding his way through complex religious imaginations (Hopkins again, with the drowned nuns of The Wreck of the Deutschland and the absolutely unforgettable nunmystic or hysteric?of Mariette in Ecstasy). With the exception of Soeur Mariette all of the above have some historical purchase, and this latest perhaps most of all. The story of the doomed couple is well-known, has been the subject of other books and a movie or two, and was indeed written up in autobiographical form by both Snyder and Gray as they waited in Sing Sing for the judicial process to reach its conclusion. So it raises in particularly acute form the question about the kind of story that stands somewhere between the historical novel and the dramatized documentary: what do you do if the facts threaten to be more interesting than the fiction?One of Hansens greatest gifts as a writer is to help readers feel their way into a time and place that is strange. All his work is set in unfamiliar places, though this latest is better-known, thanks to Hollywood. We know the world of Prohibition-era New York so very well, but the wealth of detail he adds provides a vivid background to the drama of sexual obsession and murderous fantasy become reality that moves the story along. Essentially, Hansen has worked backwards, imagining the guilty passion of Snyder and Gray from newspaper and book records of the times. If this novel reads like a True Crime story I suspect it is in part meant to do so, though there it is evidently written now and not then. Were looking at this world through a telescope; its brought close to the reader, but we know that its far away. Theres great detail, but little psychologizing, comment on the state of mind of the two protagonists but no extended consideration of motives, blame, repercussions and so on.I dont want to suggest for a minute that this is not a book worth reading, but classifying it is a real puzzle. It is most definitely worth your time and attention for sheer enjoyment, and it says just enough about the relationship between the two principal characters to leave us room to think about why Judd did what he did and just what was going on in Ruths head. The problem may be that the drama is already relatively well-known, that maybe there is too much out there for a fictional account ever to become more than a brilliant elaboration of the story. Its just not quite like Henry James spinning a tale out of a couple of lines of anecdote someone told him over one of his endless London dinners. Then the story is all, the original account just a little push to get the imagination flowing. Here we already know what happened and why, so the imagination is constrained by the ending to fill in the details, like an artist in a cartoon studio adding color to the black and white outline. Hansens previous book, Exiles, beautifully illustrates the challenge. In that work he flips back and forth between Hopkins life and the tragedy of the shipwreck of The Deutschland. Hopkins is so well-known that there is little room for the imagination, and that part of his story fell a little flat for me. But the nuns, thats another story. Their lives and deaths are beautifully created because the author can. Neither we nor he know enough about their real lives or personalities to get in the way, as it were, of fully realizing them.

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One of Hansens greatest gifts as a writer is to help readers feel their way into a time and place that is strange. All his work is set in unfamiliar places, though this latest is better-known, thanks to Hollywood. We know the world of Prohibition-era New York so very well, but the wealth of detail he adds provides a vivid background to the drama of sexual obsession and murderous fantasy become reality that moves the story along.

The feeling that one has been there and knows what it was like is purely illusory and, hence, false. His great "gift" is very like that of a plausible liar. It's no wonder that this sort of fiction lends itself to movies. They, too, play on the willingness of an audience to suspend belief in exchange for emotional satisfaction.

Well, David, I'm not able to agree with you here. Fiction after all is about "the willing suspension of disbelief." If a writer makes you feel "like you are really there," sure it's illusory in a certain sense, because novelists are in the illusion business. But it's not "false," except in some purely reductionistic sense which makes all fiction "false" and so, by your estimation I assume, a waste of time. And the same goes for movies, I think. It's a movie, and the more true it feels to you as you watch it, the more fooled you are, because of course its illusory. But false? No, just fiction.

It seems to me that, among other things, fiction gives a culture a wealth of images with which to think about and understand real, actual people. Gossip can do the same thing, which is no doubt one of the reasons gossip is so valued. But gossip is often mean-spirited, and so it falsifies, or it edits the truth. which doesn't help us learn what human nature is really like.Literature. especially the great stuff, provides illuminating images and educates as well as entertains. Shakespeare is the supreme example. But I can't help wonder if James was a gossip. If he was, I doubt he was an unkind one. I bet he at least listened to it. Shakespeare too.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.