Gail, Brian J. Dayton, Ohio: One More Soul. 2008. ISBN 978-0-9669777-8-3. $14.95
In a literary world comprised of the works of Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling, many people have forgotten the power or purpose of the novel. What is normally used as an escape or for a bit of entertainment once had the power to change the world. Books like The Jungle, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies both captivated their audiences and caused people to think and sometimes even act.
Brian J. Gail’s book “Fatherless” is a renaissance of the serious novel, and it even creates a new genre: the serious Catholic novel. I have to admit, when I first picked up the book, I thought I was in for a nice, entertaining story about some nice, Catholic people. Creating such a story, however, was not the author’s intent. Gail’s novel delves right into the heart of American Catholicism. His Church is neither the church of the pedophiliac priests which the media tends to overemphasize, nor is it the Church that many young people know today: a Church vibrant with the truth reemphasized by Pope John Paul II, ready to march for life, interested in going to Theology on Tap, and actively reminding Catholics to live their faith in the public square.
Gail’s book takes place in the 1980’s, and is centered around a priest and three families in his parish. Fr. John Sweeney is not the brightest priest, but he is sincere, devout and does not lack in charity. The families that come to him for advice and direction are concerned with moral issues that time has proven lead America to the crux of her moral quandary in the current decades.
One man, a marketing exec, is troubled by the opportunity for a new job which would involve relocating to New York City and pioneering a network similar to HBO. Does the career opportunity outweigh contributing to the moral decline of televised entertainment?
Another, a financial officer at a pharmaceutical company, confronts the reality of the biological damage of the birth control pill and balances his family’s stability with delivering the truth to thousands of American woman.
A third struggles with migraines, a bipolar daughter, an absent husband, and the morality of taking birth control to ease tensions in her family.
All of these situations are imminently real, and imminently related to moral theology. When confronted with giving guidance, the well-meaning but poorly trained Fr. John often settles for telling people what they want to hear. He finds the works of Pope John Paul II hard to understand, but at the same time, he is losing parishioners who are willing to drive a half hour to hear the truth, and the teachings of JPII, boldly proclaimed at another parish.
All of this leads to a crisis of fatherhood. What does it mean to be a father? The crisis of each of the main characters asks the question in a different way. Can a father compromise his beliefs and morals for the sake of a job that provides for his family? Can a father risk losing his job and being unable to provide for his family by standing up the immorality of his company? Ought a father do what’s right over making those in his care feel happy? When does the value of the truth outweigh the value of domestic happiness? When does the moral severity of a situation demand uncomfortable action?
Brian Gail isn’t trying to play nice. His book has been criticized for a lack of happy Hollywood endings, a criticism which he said is fair enough. His endings are not intended to placate, they are crafted to demonstrate both that God doesn’t give anyone more suffering than they can handle, and that the wages of sin are indeed death. As Pope Pius XI said, “ it is a great mystery that the salvation of the many depends on the holiness of the few.”
“Fatherless,” as a Catholic novel, isn’t intended to be a story about Catholics. It is a very real book which intentionally crosses those uncomfortable barriers people put up between what they do on a daily basis and what they profess on a weekly basis. Moral decisions have very real consequences. And while the book itself directly explores the drastic and absolutely tragic consequences that birth control and the sexual revolution had on American society through the lives of the characters, it indirectly coerces readers to examine their own attitudes towards confession, the Eucharist, marital fidelity, human sexuality, and the importance of a well-formed conscience through its often blatant statements of Catholic Moral Theology.
“Fatherless” is a must-read for the contemporary Catholic. It will resonate much differently with the generation who knew life before JPII than it will with young Catholics. But for both, it is a novel that poses the question and attempts to answer what society would really be like if men answered the challenge to be true fathers.
I must admit the book caught me off guard. When I read the accolade, “the Catholic novel of our generation,” I was not expecting the Catholic novel to change my generation. But having read the book, I realize it is a necessary catharsis. Some books grab your eye; some plots keep you up late at night to read just one more chapter. This book will change your heart and the way you live your faith.
More information, as well as the book itself, is available at www.fatherlessbook.com
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.