Across a span of fifty years, Michael Mewshaw has published twenty-two books, evenly divided between novels and nonfiction, with a lot of journalism fueling the mix. An American writer who has lived for long stretches in Rome, he befriended such writers as Gore Vidal and Pat Conroy, each the subject of his recent memoirs, and Graham Greene, the focus of his new one.
Greene is a tough task for any writer, no matter how seasoned, as we’ve learned from Norman Sherry’s hefty biographies, among other books that explore the paradox of a Catholic convert who as a young man left his wife but never divorced her, and who remained in a Church whose standards of sin he flouted with a roaming sex life that included affairs with other men’s wives. As Walker Percy once said to his biographer, Jay Tolson: “Graham Greene, Catholic. What about that?”
Another book on the what-about-that Catholic. What’s new to say? Quite a lot, actually. Mewshaw traces his own spiritual coming of age under the allure of Greene’s fiction. On becoming a writer, and ultimately friends with Greene, the memoirist’s trail opens into a well-textured character study.
Mewshaw dutifully nods to the biographical literature on the maddening riddle of Greene’s life and religious affiliation. The appeal of this book begins with an early event that serves as the author’s touchstone in seeking faith. “After their divorce I teetered as if on a tightrope between my parents. Each of them poisoned me against the other,” he writes of his rough upbringing in a blue-collar Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. As a junior at St. John DeMatha Catholic High School, he discovered The Power and the Glory.
“A nameless Mexican priest flees persecution by a government dedicated to stamping out the Church,” writes Mewshaw.
He’s an alcoholic who has violated his vow of chastity and had a child. Although there is no priest to forgive him, he retains the power to offer absolution to others…. In the ultimate irony, when the whisky priest is captured and executed, he becomes a martyr, which according to Catholic doctrine, means he’s miraculously assumed into heaven.
The novel drives Mewshaw to “feel responsible not just for saving my own soul, but also for bringing my divorced parents and my stepfather back to the sacraments. Greene’s novel gave me hope that if the whisky priest could be redeemed, so could they.” That hope soon sank, but faith anchored Mewshaw as he got older. “A conscientious, rule-abiding Catholic myself, I nevertheless admired Greene’s struggle with disbelief and respected his intellectual jiu jitsu in becoming both a writer and a Catholic.”
“Hypersexuality was one aspect of Greene’s life that I had no desire to emulate,” he continues. “I yearned for a loving faithful partner.”
As a University of Virginia graduate student in literature, he meets his soulmate, Linda Kirby. They marry; he earns a Fulbright that supports a year in France. In the early 1970s, with his first novel accepted for publication, they enjoy the genteel poverty of expatriates. Mewshaw’s obsession leads to his writing Greene, yielding an invitation to visit Greene’s apartment in Antibes. “He was then sixty-eight and a world historical figure. I was twenty-nine, and my initial impression was of a very old man, fragile, stoop-shouldered, with oysterish blue eyes that avoided mine.”