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The book corner: Faith and doubt in American fiction

  • 03 February 2023

Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Literature by Nick Ripatrazone. Fortress Press, 2020

For many readers, the study of literature with overtly religious themes starts and ends with 19th century writers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hugo, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Emily Dickinson. But literature that wrestles with matters of belief has always found an audience of millions, despite some reluctance from the contemporary publishing industry, perhaps afraid of the dogmatism that might stem from art which moves beyond merely grappling with questions to posit answers. Flannery O’Connor called dogmatic works ‘sorry productions’ because faith is ‘not a set of rules which fixes [what the writer] sees in the world. It affects his (sic) writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery.’

In Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Literature, US literary critic, editor and teacher Nick Ripatrazone finds dogmatism to be entirely absent from the honest explorations of spiritual meaning in the great works from the authors that are the focus of his book. These authors have all emerged from Catholicism, and Ripatrazone includes ‘lapsed’ or ‘cultural’ Catholic authors whose work expresses a longing for a divine presence that may have been lost or abandoned.

Through exploring the work of nine Catholic American authors — with special focus on Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo — Ripatrazone boldly attempts to discover what it is about faith and the desire for transcendence that exerts such influence over the popular imagination. His choices offer a broad scope from which he explains how Catholicism influenced celebrated works and their reception.

Ripatrazone’s book is journalistic rather than academic in tone, yet it offers an intellectually and theologically rigorous engagement with religious themes. As Ripatrazone said in an interview with Catholic News Service: ‘Catholicism is a tremendous “story” — a true story, of course, and writers and poets who skilfully and humbly examine the tensions, paradoxes, revelations and images of that story can create beautiful and dynamic work … and ponder the truth behind the words.’

For the squeamish, it can be hard to see the beauty in the work of Cormac McCarthy, who, at the age of 89, last year released two new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris. As evidenced in his major works such as The Road, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy’s work is