'Hallelujah Anyway' celebrates all in life that is worthy of praise

There is much in this book that is trademark Lamott – theological speculation, hippie slang and domestic comedy, C.S. Lewis by way of Janis Joplin by way of Erma Bombeck.

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy By Anne Lamott Riverhead Books 176 pp.

Anne Lamott’s recent literary outings – “Help, Thanks, Wow” in 2012, “Stitches” in 2013 – have been bite-size books of spiritual reflection slender enough to slip into a pocket or purse. “Small Victories,” which came out in 2014, was a bit thicker, mixing new essays with previously published material.

The compact scale of Lamott’s work these past few years is a case of form following function. She means her ideas to be portable and practical, meeting life at street level rather than from the safe remove of an armchair. Her recent books have the lightness and sensibility of a field guide, and they are field guides of a sort – texts that invite us to measure the way the world is supposed to be against the way it really is.

That tension between the ideal and the actual is a continuing interest for Lamott. She’s written candidly about her troubled childhood, her struggles with alcohol, her hard-won sobriety, and her belief – despite of or perhaps because of these trials – that life is essentially good.

Hallelujah Anyway takes its name from a gospel song performed by Candi Staton.  Embracing the song’s theme, Lamott argues that life, though often touched by suffering, is still worthy of praise because “in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.”

It’s a simple notion, but one that Lamott feels compelled to affirm given this season’s headlines:

"Where, then, do I turn in these increasingly frightening days? Where do I look for answers when I’m afraid, or confused, or numb? To an elegant Japanese sage? A dream-dancing Sioux grandmother with a tinkling laugh? No. More often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. He must have looked like a complete stoner or a 'Game of Thrones' extra, and smelled like a goat, yet nearly three thousand years ago, he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: 'What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?'”

This is trademark Lamott – theological speculation, hippie slang and domestic comedy, C.S. Lewis by way of Janis Joplin by way of Erma Bombeck.  It’s an idiosyncratic voice inflected by the bohemian culture of Lamott’s native San Francisco – a self-deprecating, confessional style that’s endeared Lamott to a loyal following of fans.

She quickly admits that Micah’s directive is, for her at least, easier said than done. “Right off the bat I can tell you,” she writes, “that ‘walk humbly with thy God’ is not going to happen anytime soon, for me or my closest friends.... What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time.”

Lamott’s philosophical speculations unfold like a friendly conversation, but there are times when the breeziness of her tone seems to reflect a breeziness of thought. “Mercy is radical kindness,” she observes in one of her best insights. But the second chapter, “Life Cycles,” offers a series of platitudes about growing up – that we are innocent as infants, self-conscious as teens, a bit world-weary as adults. She seems to be clearing her throat and improvising her way to some larger point that ultimately remains elusive.

“Some people sprang from healthy, adjusted families, with happy, fulfilled parents who, if necessary, sought therapy for their addiction, anger, depression, and grief, and who celebrated children who were deeply different,” Lamott writes. “Or so I heard. Maybe three or four of all the people I have known.”

Really? Lamott’s assumption that household life is routinely dysfunctional tends to frame family relationships as a continuing exercise in clinical treatment, and her personal testimonies here can sound, a bit tediously, like dispatches from the therapist’s couch.

What one misses here is the simple clarity of “Help, Thanks, Wow,” which had an obvious beginning, middle, and end. “Hallelujah Anyway” often reads more like a brainstorm for a book than a finished draft. One wonders if Lamott’s active speaking and publishing schedule – four books in five years – is taking its toll.

Lamott mentions that the ancient Chinese decorated the cracked parts of treasured belongings with gold leaf as a way to mark rather than mask imperfections – a subtle acknowledgment that our flaws are part of our beauty, too.

“Hallelujah Anyway” is a lot like that. Its imperfections are obvious, but at their best, they point to the open-armed vulnerability that connects Lamott with her audience. This is a not-quite-realized book about mercy that is, ultimately, deserving of a little mercy, too.     

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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