“Can you stand before the Throne of Judgment with a clear conscience, knowing you did what was commanded of you, when the Man of God came to ask you to do what was commanded of you, and give according to the great need?” writes Kyle Minor in his novel excerpt, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, featured in the July 15th issue of Guernica, an exploration of religion and sex among missionaries in Haiti. To serve the Lord one must obey certain commandments asked of them, but, as Minor proposes, sometimes it’s difficult to fight the impulse to colonize and dominate. Below, Minor lists his reading recommendations that helped model the ecclesiastical world of his novel.
For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander
I grew up in an enclave of rural-born Southern Baptists in an increasingly cosmopolitan West Palm Beach, Florida. Part of the pleasure of writing about a closed community—these missionaries are fundamentalist Baptists from the South, after all—is that there is a special body of knowledge available to those on the inside (the arcana of Creationism and dispensational End Times-ism, the strictures of the moral code, and the special language (the King James, plus what’s left of the local Southern dialects)), which means there are plenty of riches to mine. But the downside is that there is an existing literary tradition within the community that doesn’t share the values of “literary fiction.” Nice-making and conformity are the ideals, I mean, of the books pressed on me in the community in which I was raised. Capital-T truth telling—Truth of the Absolute variety—requires the writer to re-shape the narrative in the direction of the bigger Truth, which often means leaving out lots of inconvenient things. Service to the Truth, I’ve found, often requires infidelity to the truth. I was encouraged from childhood to write toward a moral lesson, out of the tradition of the didactic or the parable, rather than toward the darker things experience will reveal.
In search of models, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to post-war American Jewish writers, who inherited a richer literary tradition and a century of much worse trouble than these Baptists, but who likewise had to find ways to reckon with the exigencies of a closed community as well as the sometimes limiting expectations of another closed community (the existing American fiction-making scene, which they were brave enough to upturn). I’ve been thinking about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s troubled relationship with other Yiddish writers, a scenario best dramatized in Cynthia Ozick’s comic novella Envy: Or Yiddish in America, and best lived out in Singer’s stories and in his contrary novels, in which he was never afraid to handle the sacred things, or to flirt with melodrama.
Of the books pressed on me in the community in which I was raised. Capital-T truth telling—Truth of the Absolute variety—requires the writer to re-shape the narrative in the direction of the bigger Truth, which often means leaving out lots of inconvenient things.
I’ve paid close attention to the way Saul Bellow and Philip Roth shed simultaneously their parents and grandparents and the university-years influence of Henry James, when Bellow made his move from his neat early novels to the over-the-topness of Augie March, or when Roth made his last kiss-off to propriety with Portnoy’s Complaint. I’ve admired, too, how both writers made their greatest breakthroughs mid-career, when freedom and control found their great synthesis, as in Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral, or Bellow’s Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift. More recently, and closer to my own generation, I’ve been thinking about Nathan Englander’s reckoning with his Orthodox upbringing on Long Island, and, as importantly, the mythology that attended to his childhood—a mythology he took seriously enough to test in the world beyond his neighborhood, to interrogate, to distance himself from, and from that distance to see perhaps more clearsightedly than he might have been able to see before.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth
As a college student, Deb Olin Unferth fell in with a wing of evangelicals more radical than any I’ve ever known. After reading Revolution, her account of those days as a true believer and would-be Sandinista, I suspect it was the white heat of romantic passion that had seized her as much as any religious fervor. By the end of her trip, she was laid up with a fever and a big-time desire for some McDonald’s. It would be difficult to overestimate how much I loved reading this book. I talked with the author at length here. I think she’s one of the shining stars of American literature, and I want to be like her when I grow up.
Airships by Barry Hannah
My first book, In the Devil’s Territory, was a modest collection of short stories after the manner of favorite mean-it-forever writers such as Andre Dubus, Katherine Anne Porter, and Anton Chekhov. This time around, I wanted to do something different, to stretch out into the hyperbolic, to engage recklessly in wordplay, to posit the interior lives of people who could convince themselves they weren’t lying to themselves by lying to themselves while fully aware that they were lying to themselves, and come out the other side with a romantic vision of the world in some ways more true than any of the true things the truthtellers were truthing.
I’ve been falling in love, again, with some of the books that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I’ve been thinking about the riches of excess, the risks of transgressing not only cultural norms about what one ought to say, but also literary norms about how one ought to say it. My friends in this pursuit have been Thomas Bernhard, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Richard Price, Stephen Dixon, Lee K. Abbott, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay. And there has been no greater pleasure than wallowing again in pages by the patron saint of excess, Barry Hannah, whose awful “Love Too Long” narrator could say: “I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out. Some nights she lets me lick her ears and knees. I can’t talk about it. It’s driving me into a sorry person.”