Throughout the twentieth century, lively American fiction writers with a social conscience—among them Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Paley—experimented playfully with new ways to explore the lives of those on the margins of society, and invented clever forms for stories about workers, political protesters, and the poor. That experimental impulse continues today, especially in the fiction of such writers as Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, and Junot Díaz, even as it is informed by a more straightforward realist tradition.

Nicole d’Entremont’s first novel, an affecting account of the 1965 self-immolation by a Catholic Worker protesting all war, is both realist and modestly experimental: according to the author’s note, many of the chapters were originally composed as “sudden fiction,” or short, intense narratives, told from multiple perspectives. The form works well, for the most part, in a book that probes a shocking act from many angles. The characters are mostly Catholic Workers and the poor they live among in lower Manhattan; d’Entremont herself was one of them, and was friends with Roger La Porte (Jonathan Le Blanc in the novel), the young man who set himself ablaze in front of the United Nations. Some of the other fictional Workers are composites based on real people, d’Entremont tells us, and many names have been changed—but historical war-resisters like A. J. Muste make appearances, and Dorothy Day herself is the focus of several brief interludes. Day’s flashes of tart, no-nonsense dialogue have the ring of a novelist’s authentic memory: she tells a young volunteer who no longer attends Mass that she’ll “never be able to continue this work” without Communion.

“Sanctimonious old biddy,” thinks the volunteer, Del—perhaps the closest this novel has to a protagonist. Doubting, even cynical, Del has left college and the church but is nonetheless still drawn to the work of the soup kitchen named “St. Jude’s” in these pages. As the summer of 1965 turns to fall, as Vietnam War deaths escalate and Americans divide themselves into pro- and antiwar camps, Del performs the corporal works of mercy, peeling potatoes and sorting clothes.

D’Entremont’s brisk vignettes convey the earthiness of daily life at St. Jude’s, vibrant with vulgarities and endearments from Bowery old-timers with names like Smokey Joe and Frances Furpiece. Del reflects that “service to the poor, when [she] pondered it in college, had a nobility” she doesn’t often find in reality. The strains of the surrounding poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse tell on the young volunteers, and the war forces many of the men to decide whether to publicly burn their draft cards and offer themselves up for hard terms in federal prison. In the war’s shadow, the young Workers romance each other and choose between the sexual freedoms of the day and the possibilities of marriage. Del is intermittently involved with another Worker, but there is also some sexual tension emanating from her friend Le Blanc.

The novel probes Le Blanc’s increasing frenzy as another Catholic Worker, his friend and romantic interest Mercedes, lies in Bellevue Hospital, stricken with a mysterious paralysis the doctors first believe to be connected to her recent posting in Tanzania. Mercedes has left the convent and the religious life that sent her to Africa, just as Jonathan has left the monastery, and their displacement from their institutional homes in the church is a good counterpart to the young Workers’ displacement from their middle-class suburban upbringings and their parents’ expectations. Dorothy Day frets that some of the current crop of volunteers are “even corrosively hostile to the church,” but their doubt extends beyond the institution. On the night before his demonstration, Jonathan implores Del: “You do believe there is a God, don’t you?” and she says she doesn’t know, only admitting to “some energy out there” that she “can’t explain.”

The energy she can’t explain will manifest itself the next morning, when Jonathan sets himself alight: Del’s clock will stop at the exact minute Jonathan’s watch stops, and the paralyzed Mercedes will regain some feeling in her legs and try to climb out of her hospital bed. New York City is plunged into the darkness of a blackout––a massive power failure––while Jonathan lingers, burns covering 95 percent of his body. The blackout really did occur on the same day as the immolation, and the sheer unlikeliness of the other coincidences convinces me that they, too, are based on reality, rather than fictional constructions. D’Entremont does not strike me as a writer who would manipulate her readers with such an invention.

Indeed, it is her attempt to get at the truth of that time that makes this account worth reading. D’Entremont peers into the heads of these complicated Catholic Workers, trying to understand their religious and political beliefs and doubts at the same time she is portraying the thick texture of their external world and their moment in history. The decision to narrate this story from multiple perspectives is certainly apt: Catholic Worker communities speak through many voices. The brevity of the chapters, and especially the occasional mid-chapter shifting from one character’s perspective to another’s, can be frustrating: the characters, their dilemmas, and their language are rich enough to stick with longer. The prose is sometimes bumpy, the transitions abrupt. But these are quibbles about a moving account of a terrifying, mystifying choice.

Some of the best, most innovative writing comes at the end of the novel, when Jonathan lies dying and the reader enters his hospital room through his fractured consciousness. These chapters—indeed the entire novel—are told with tremendous generosity of spirit and a good deal of narrative grace, and they are difficult to read only in the sense that all meditations on disturbing acts are challenging. A reader senses that these pages have been struggled up, and joins in the struggle. I had forgotten about Roger La Porte and his self-sacrifice, and I am grateful for d’Entremont’s brave reminder.

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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Published in the 2009-12-18 issue: View Contents
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