City of Belief
Fox Print Books, $16, 242 pp.
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...