The Last Earnest Catholic Novel?

Revisiting ‘Mr. Blue’
Author Myles Connolly and the cover of 'Mr. Blue'

To conflate a quote from one Oscar Wilde play with the title of another, nowadays to be earnest is to be found out. Earnestness in secular literature has been gauche for years, but one of the greatest literary sins is frank depictions of religious belief. God forbid the writer who chooses conviction over irony. A character who authentically believes in God is strange, mad, or a liar. Sometimes all three.

How did this happen? Literary history is a story of responses and rejoinders, and the nineteenth-century ancestors of the modern Catholic novel were, in the words of D.J. Taylor, “straightforward toeings of the party line.” Today the pendulum has swung in the complete opposite direction, where straightforward faith cannot be presumed. Religious art tends to be self-consciously devotional or distant.

It has been this way for some time. As far back as 1992, Paul Giles wrote, “what we characteristically find in American Catholic writers is a conflict between a desire for integration and a compulsion toward isolation: between an urge on the one hand to collapse the old ethnic order and work one’s way into American society by adopting the conventional behavior patterns of energetic individualism, and a residual sentiment on the other that insists these secular and materialistic values are not ‘genuine’ and never can be.”

Giles’s description perfectly captures the ethnic Catholic sentiment that seeps into the work of Don DeLillo and Flannery O’Connor, but as the shadow of postmodernism extends to the present, Catholic writers are no longer ashamed of their rosaries—they don’t own any.

Take for a recent example the novels of self-described “agnostic Catholic” David Lodge. In The British Museum Is Falling Down, Catholicism is the source of outmoded sexuality, a cultural millstone in the form of the rhythm method. Adam and Barbara Appleby already have three children and don’t want another, but as practicing Catholics, they have little recourse. In Therapy, Catholicism is a source of nostalgia—what his characters believed in before they grew up. The novel’s usage of church symbolism—from the Virgin Mary to religious pilgrimage—remains firmly in the world of ironic symbol rather than credible belief.

The earnest religious literary work is pious and unembarrassed about faith. The characters might struggle with belief; they might even lapse into doubt. Yet overall, earnest religious works exist as spiritual stories in a secular world, and not as stories in which belief is mere symbol. Perhaps the last fully earnest Catholic novel was published nearly ninety years ago in 1928. Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly is a vestige of another literary era. Mr. Blue is a mystic: part modern-day St. Francis, part itinerant monk. His eccentricity and unbridled joy might first confuse the contemporary reader, but the largely forgotten book is worth revisiting in the age of ironic religious fiction.

The novel is narrated and framed by an acquaintance of Blue, who is both fascinated and confounded by his saintlike subject. In a more contemporary work, this narrator would be dismissive of Blue, but in Connolly’s vision, the narrator adopts a generous tone. What makes Mr. Blue fully earnest is that both the characters and the novelist are earnestly Catholic. An earnest character in the hands of an ironic writer would feel like parody. Mr. Blue, however ebullient, never becomes a joke.   

Catholic writers are no longer ashamed of their rosaries—they don’t own any.

Blue is whimsical, taken to trips and pilgrimages; the narrator calls him a “gallant monk without an order. Or perhaps his order was life and the world his monastery.” Blue was a millionaire through an inheritance. He buys estates, hires servants, and lets the servants have the homes. He entertains himself by spending his money as quickly as possible—and when he goes broke, he realizes “those millions were a trial set me by my Lady Poverty.” Cleansed of wealth, he embarks on a wild tour of grace, armed with the “boyishness of the true mystic.” The narrator might think Blue is insane, but divinely so.

Connolly, a scriptwriter who was once nominated for an Oscar for Music for Millions, wrote more of an entertainment than a novel in Mr. Blue. It is not a work of intellectual latitude, but that is part of the book’s appeal. The novel is written with the spirit of Mr. Blue, an odd, child-like man who “talked of life, the adventure of life, the loveliness of life.”

This is not to say that Mr. Blue is simplistic. Connolly was a deft writer. Still early in the book, while the narrator is trying to understand his unusual friend, it is dusk in the street, and “students in a theological school nearby were practicing hymns. Lights were spurting out, street lights, window lights.” Connolly shows us Blue sleeping in an attic, where the scene is downright surreal:

“Behind the screen was a tall black cross mounted on a slight elevation. It was a brutal, bare cross. Before it, to one side, burned a candle. And on the floor, on his knees, his hands on the floor, his head almost on his hands, his hair barely out of reach of the smoky candle, knelt the erstwhile gay and gallant Blue. It was a striking picture, the black cross, the black figure, and the splotch of yellow candle.”

This is a pivot endemic to the Catholic literary mode; the swift ascent to the lyric, sensual, and hymnal.

Mr. Blue ponders publishing a deluxe, decadently-illustrated edition of the New Testament. He wants to make a film about a post-apocalyptic world where Christianity has been eliminated and where humans “were minor automatons, servants of a mechanical state.”  He lives on top of a skyscraper, where he pantomimes Mass and wants the homeless of the city to join him: “Poor people with these horizons! Poor people with the whole beautiful world beneath them!”

The second half of Mr. Blue is slow, focused on Blue’s letters to the narrator. The prose lacks the awe-induced immediacy of the early pages. Yet there still is the occasional gem in the prose, as when Blue makes an impassioned call for a resurrection of authentic religious art in America. “The poet saw Christ on the Thames,” he says. “We might find him on the Hudson or the Charles.” He longs for “artists to immerse themselves in the fresh waters of the faith and come up vibrant, clean, alert, to the world around them.” He is tired of religious writers speaking of the past: “Great men dominate their age with their own art . . . They do not achieve greatness by fleeing the present or by bowing down in timid affection before the past . . . No. They take contemporary life vividly into their arms and out of the union is born their art.” Sincere words, captured and curated by the narrator who concludes with Blue’s wider statement: that Catholic art is the best defense against “scientific agnosticism”; it offers another state of mind, another mode of being.

While the narrator may not be as ardent a Catholic as Blue, he wishes he were—and that sense of respect permeates the book. Blue’s strangeness arises from the same place as his genuineness. Mr. Blue is the story of a man who considers generosity and belief acts of cultural rebellion. It is a book of authentic, unbridled religious conviction—not so much a fossil as a work that needs to be found, dusted off, and appreciated. 

Nick Ripatrazone is the author of The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (Cascade Books) and of two books of poetry, Oblations and This is Not About Birds (Gold Wake Press).

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