EVENSONG By Gail Godwin Ballantine 408 pp., $25
Congress wrote God onto every dollar bill, but it's always been hard to find that statement of faith written in American literature. The Puritans had no use for such light diversions as fiction. And those 19th-century classics that still bedevil high school students ("Walden," "The Scarlet Letter," "Moby Dick") were composed by nonconformists who thought of themselves as outside the temple gates.
In our own century, the triumph of irony, ambiguity, and downright cynicism has made America's highbrow fiction either oblivious to traditional religion or hostile to it. Even the few recent exceptions seem to prove the rule. The protagonist in Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe" (1991) seeks salvation in a quirky cult obsessed with the avoidance of sugar. John Updike's "In the Beauty of the Lilies" (1995) opens with a Presbyterian minister losing his faith and closes in the flames of Waco. Barbara Kingsolver's "Poisonwood Bible" (1998) rails against the arrogance of Christian missionaries. The blustering real estate tycoon at the center of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" (1998) is finally "saved" by turning to Greek stoicism and worshipping Zeus in a comic conclusion that seems as much a satire of modern-day evangelicalism as an endorsement of classical theology.
Despite a national literature strongly devoted to portraying ordinary people, writers seem unable or unwilling to include elements of faith and religion that are part of most Americans' lives. Tens of millions of Americans go to church every week, read the Bible every day, and pray all the time, but that would surprise anyone learning about 20th-century life from our literature.
For readers waiting for a literary novel that treats traditional religious issues with wisdom, wit, and compassion, Gail Godwin's "Evensong" is an answer to prayer. Here, finally, is a thoroughly post post-modern book that doesn't worship irony and ambiguity to the exclusion of all other values.
The story takes place in High Balsam, a small mountain town in North Carolina during the final months of the millennium. Margaret Bonner, the young pastor of an Episcopal church, can't wait for all the hoopla to pass. She's more concerned about the rising tensions between wealthy professionals and recently laid-off workers. She knows how much delicate work will be required to preserve this community, while rousing some members from complacency and dousing others' millennial extremism.
The story opens on the evening that three strangers drop in on Margaret's quiet contemplation of the Advent season. First, Tony, an 80-year-old monk, steps off a Greyhound bus and suggests he needs a place to stay the night. Then, Grace Munger, a large, rude woman in a voluminous red cape, swoops in to reveal God's plan for a Millennial Birthday March for Jesus. And finally, the aptly named Chase Zorn, an alcoholic student at her husband's reform school, gets expelled and must move in with them.
Each of these visitors promises a short stay, but instead, they hover around for months, bringing frustrations no one would want, but at the same time deepening and blessing Margaret's sense of family more than she could have imagined.
There's so much to admire about this sensitive, perfectly paced novel, but what's particularly striking are Godwin's insights into a busy marriage between people wholly devoted to helping others.
Margaret guides her church flock with humor and humility. Her husband struggles to hold the school together in the wake of its founder's death and his own sense of inadequacy. With so many people pulling at them, they know how easy it is to neglect each other. Struggling to figure out the monk's real purpose, save Chase from his self-destructive impulses, and fend off Grace Munger's incendiary birthday plans proves almost more than Margaret and her husband can handle.
It's fascinating to see the kind of intimacy possible in a novel concerned with the spiritual requirements of marriage between two very smart, religious people. In her charmingly self-conscious narrative, Margaret's prayers and conversations about God with her husband seem a hundred times more revealing than the predictable sex scenes that too often pass for intimacy in fiction.
Comforting a new widow, rousing her husband from depression, parrying with an outrageous fundamentalist, or wrestling with her own doubts, Margaret is the minister many cherish in real life but never get to see in fiction.
"Evensong" is a story full of fresh, spiritual wisdom, yet entirely free of cant or saccharine truisms. Smashing one of the strangest taboos in American literature, Godwin may have finally brought religion back from the wilderness and made it a safe subject for literary fiction.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com