The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature
by Nicholas Ripatrazone
Cascade Books, 2013
202 pp., $16.20
The year since the initial release of The Fine Delight has been a year of self-definition for the Catholic literary community. In a series of now well-known essays, writers Randy Boyagoda, Paul Elie, Dana Gioia, and Gregory Wolfe have sought to articulate the place Catholicism currently holds within contemporary literary culture in America. As the conversation they sparked continues, Nicholas Ripatrazone’s landmark study of Catholic literature after the Second Vatican Council, The Fine Delight, continues to grow in relevance.
In a spirit of rapprochement between secular and Catholic literary communities, Ripatrazone identifies the unifying element of postconciliar Catholic literary artists as being, not necessarily adherence to the Magisterium in matters of belief or praxis, but a deep and abiding existential pull toward the person of Christ and a fascination with the body of the Church He founded. His intention does not seem to be to downplay the importance of shared belief or of moral consensus in other spheres of life, but instead in the matter of literature to spread the umbrella of the term “Catholic writer” as wide as it can go, in a spirit of small-c catholicity, or universality. This approach encourages reading contemporary literature through a lens of faith in a way that does not primarily categorize or evaluate authors or characters on the basis of their relationship to the Church. Instead, Ripatrazone prioritizes the development of a historical understanding of the effects of postconciliar society, within and outside the Church, on art and on daily life. The result is an enriching study of Catholicism in literature in the last fifty years, encompassing both writers commonly embraced by consciously Catholic readers (Hansen, Mariani, Dubus) as well as those less commonly so embraced, but still susceptible of fruitful reading through a Catholic lens (DeLillo, Eugenides, Morrison, and McCarthy, among others). This latter category includes some authors who, while having rejected a Catholic worldview, retain a Catholic aesthetic that continues to shape their writing. Such works should be, and are beginning to be, more widely and fruitfully engaged by those who are serious both about orthodox Catholicism and about literature. Ripatrazone’s first chapter gives strong support to this movement, as he gives readings of some contemporary novels through a Catholic lens.
Ripatrazone’s work also seeks to make serious Catholic writers of literature better known in the broader literary culture. The heart of The Fine Delight is formed by three central chapters; in each one, Ripatrazone highlights one of three authors whose work embodies an intersection of the highest literary standards with faithful Catholic belief: namely Paul Mariani, Ron Hansen, and Andre Dubus. Each of these central chapters delves into a close reading of its particular study in a way that, true to the book’s name, will delight those who already appreciate these authors and captivate those who have not yet encountered them.
Another aspect of The Fine Delight that deserves particular praise is Ripatrazone’s ability to acknowledge ideological divides while avoiding ideological partisanship. Ripatrazone accurately chronicles the drift of the literary community in these divides (largely leftward, though with significant exceptions), without himself seeming to take sides for the most part. Such advocacy would be beyond the scope of a literary study like this, and Ripatrazone does little beyond giving ear in later chapters to “interrogations” of Catholic tradition raised by some of the subjects of his study. The ability to peacefully engage such “interrogations” without losing clarity about the content of Catholic teaching and the boundaries of Catholic thought will only grow in importance in the future.
In The Fine Delight, we have a thorough and thoughtful piece of scholarship that encourages this ability to be an informed, engaged Catholic reader of texts that stand in a wide variety of relationships to the concept of the “Catholic writer.” It celebrates the Catholic contribution to contemporary literature, not in a triumphalist vein, but with reason and patient exposition that will appeal to readers both inside and outside the Church.