• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.
To be sure, Hassler is more a middlebrow than a modernist, and his (mostly) sympathetic chronicles of Minnesota life are written in a straightforward, accessible style. Judge him by the exalted standards of Proust and Joyce—or, for that matter, O’Connor—and he’ll come up short. Try thinking of him as a Midwestern John P. Marquand and you’ll get a better idea of what he’s about. “Of all the people I know,” Marquand observed, “only Americans, because of some sort of inferiority complex, keep attempting the impossible and trying to get away from their environment.” Jon Hassler has never made that mistake. His novels are set in the small-town world where he was born and in which he has spent the whole of his 74 years, and his characters are ordinary people who spend their days grappling, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, with the ordinary problems of life, love, aging, and death.
One of the things that makes these characters so distinctive is that many (though not all) of them are churchgoers. Not coincidentally, Hassler is a Catholic novelist, and certain of his books are very decidedly the work of a Catholic novelist. Yet their temperate emotional climate has little in common with the claustrophobic creations of, say, Graham Greene or François Mauriac. In Hassler’s novels, no one, not even the priests, is obsessed with the problem of faith in the modern world, nor do his teachers, grocery-store owners, and family doctors take much of an interest in what Browning called “the dangerous edge of things.” They are simply trying to get along in a complicated world, and though they view that world through the prism of belief, most have learned that few answers are quite so easy as they look:
Rain’s only value, for Miss McGee, was that it reminded her how precious was good weather. She despised rain. But she knew that to the earth, rain was as necessary as sunshine. Could it be, she wondered, that the vice and barbarism abroad in the world served, like the rain, some purpose? Did the abominations in the Sunday paper mingle somehow with the goodness in the world and together, like the rain and sun feeding the ferns, did they nourish some kind of life she was unaware of?
The “Miss McGee” of this passage from Staggerford, Hassler’s first novel, is Agatha McGee, a schoolmarm of strongly conservative bent who turns up in several of his later books, most prominently in A Green Journey and Dear James. Like Barbara Pym and Elmore Leonard, Hassler likes to reuse his characters, and so there is something to be gained from reading his books in sequence, though North of Hope stands slightly apart from his ongoing chronicle of life in Staggerford and its environs, and can be read without reference to any of his other books. Reissued last year as part of the Loyola Classics series, North of Hope takes a hackneyed situation—an unhappily married woman falling in love with a priest—and contrives to turn it into something fresh and satisfying.
No matter which one you read first, Hassler’s books repay close reading, not least for their unpretentiously thoughtful observations about life. Here are two of my favorites, from North of Hope and The Love Hunter:
There ought to be a limit (she thought as she steered the bronze Chrysler through the cemetery gate) on the number of open graves you had to look down into in any given lifetime.
He had supposed that when you dissolved a joyless marriage, you opened yourself to the return of joy, but he discovered himself open instead to loneliness.
North of Hope is my favorite Hassler novel. If you’re allergic to priestly protagonists, start with the first two, Staggerford and Simon’s Night. Both are out of print, but used copies are easy to find online.