I have an unofficial rule here at Mindful Pleasures of only commenting on books that readers can (at least theoretically) read for themselves, but I'm breaking that rule today to write about an important book that has not yet been published and that I have had the privilege of reading in manuscript, Walter A. Davis's The Last Catholic.
Attentive readers of this blog might recognize Davis's name, but it deserves to be much better-known. A Professor Emeritus of English, now retired from Ohio State University, Davis is the author of the interdisciplinary nonfiction books Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud; Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative; Death's Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9/11; Get the Guests: Psychoanalysis, Modern American Drama and the Audience; and several other books (all of which can be purchased at Amazon.com).
His massive fictional work-in-progress, The Last Catholic (of which I have just read the finished first volume), is a novel unlike any other in American literature. To call it the story of a Catholic childhood, youth and young adulthood in 1950's Chicago is like calling Moby Dick a fishing story; to call it an American bildungsroman is like calling The Great Gatsby the story of a rich guy who gets capped. The Last Catholic is indeed a modern American version of an intellectual bildungsroman (or 'antibildungsroman,' as Davis has it); it's "the story of the growth of a mind," but it's also so much more: an intense psychological study of family relations and sexuality; a reinvention of the Naturalism/Realism of Dreiser and Sinclair (especially in a chapter in which Davis's narrator works one summer on a construction crew building a Chicago high-rise); an exploration of the dialectical relationship between reading and experience that effectively deconstructs the duality, showing that reading is experience (when done deeply); a phenomenology of reading containing multiple descriptions of the experience that are unlike anything in American literature; an unsparing account of teenage and young adult sexuality in the 1950s-60s and the regulation and deployment of this desire by social authorities (the family and the Catholic Church); an exploration of 'consciousness' as a fundamental reality that we cannot think past (although we can 'feel' our way into it by following our emotions)... And even this list doesn't exhaust the riches of Davis's novel. It's a book studded with original, stand-out scenes: a Rorschach test that culminates in the narrator's memory of viewing Willem de Kooning's Excavation; a bizarre, heartbreaking letter written to the narrator by a friend in a mental hospital; several scenes that are like anthropological descriptions of pre-Sixties American sexuality; one scene in a cloakroom at a Catholic school that absolutely nails the crazy fetishism of teenage male desire; in that same chapter, a description of Catholic education that takes the theme of martyrdom to places that will shock most readers; a near-journalistic account of the response of students at Marquette University to the Cuban Missile Crisis (a good portion of this novel is set at Marquette in the early Sixties, so it is, among other things, the Great Marquette Novel). In short, The Last Catholic is that rare thing in our country's literature, a philosophical novel that stands comparison to the great philosophical novels of Europe (some of which are discussed in detail in the book; the 'climax' of the novel comes when the narrator locks himself in a room for a week and reads The Brothers Karamazov, an experience that changes his life). Davis is writing an answer to all those who have wondered why American literature no longer deals with the 'Big Issues': Life, Death, the Meaning (or meaninglessness) of Existence. This is the kind of book that many Americans have been waiting and reading for. Any publisher who cares about the future of American literature as art and exploration should rush to acquire this book and publish it, making it available to a reading public that's famished for truly serious, complex and challenging fiction. Davis's novel promises to be an event in our literature. It deserves to be read.