Hotly in Pursuit of the Real: Notes Toward a Memoir by Ron Hansen
Slant Books, 2020; 183 pp., $20.00
Review by Jeffrey Wald
One of the most enjoyable experiences for any reader is to be introduced to a writer and to find in that person a new friend—and then to turn that new friend loose to participate in the ongoing conversation in one’s own head. Such has been the experience I have had with two of my favorite writers, Ron Hansen and Walker Percy.
After a heavy dose of large Russian novels in my early twenties, Walker Percy was one of the first contemporary Catholic novelists I encountered. I remember picking up a used copy of The Moviegoer and being blown away by its Christian existentialism. I was a sophomore in college at the time, studying philosophy and literature. I was daily confronted with new ideas and ways of living I had never before encountered. I found Binx’s pilgrimage toward the transcendent apropos for my own inner search, and I soon ordered the rest of Percy’s corpus; Lost in the Cosmos remains a top-five all-time read.
Not long after, my professor introduced me to Ron Hansen. What, I thought, a Catholic novelist who is still alive and writing? This I had to encounter firsthand. So I picked up Atticus, and here I found another quest. But unlike Binx’s open-ended movement out of the malaise of postmodernity, Atticus Cody’s journey aimed to discover what happened to his lost drifter of a son. Whereas Binx may have been something of a “prodigal son” (with no father), Atticus was a true prodigal father, willing to descend to the depths of human misery to find and rescue his son.
Although Percy and Hansen are perhaps best known for their novels, they are also formidable essayists. Percy’s posthumously published Signposts in a Strange Land covers an impressive range of topics with both seriousness and humor, and Hansen’s first collection of essays on faith and fiction, A Stay Against Confusion, transcends its focus by means of a Catholic worldview at once particular and generous. Hansen’s second book of essays, Hotly in Pursuit of the Real, was published by Slant in April. These twenty-two short essays and two interviews again have put my mind on Hansen, and by extension, on my old friend Walker Percy.
Like Percy’s essays, Hansen’s succinct gems can be read and enjoyed in two principal ways. First, they can be savored in their own right for the beauty of the prose, the clarity and precision of the writing, and Hansen’s ability to express the hints of transcendence that inhere in created objects. Hansen sees reality as sacramental. He is at his best when portraying the salvific narrative ever-present in God’s world. His titular essay “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real” details how this narrative began to unfold in his own life as it drew him toward writing from an early age:
Looking back on my childhood now, I find that church-going and religion were in good part the origin of my vocation as a writer, for along with Catholicism’s feast for the senses, its ethical concerns, its insistence on seeing God in all things and the high status it gave to scripture, drama and art, there was a connotation in Catholicism’s liturgies that story-telling mattered. Each Mass was a narrative steeped in meaning and metaphor, helping the faithful not only to remember the past but to make it present here and now and to bind ourselves into a sharing group so that, ideally, we could continue the public ministry of Jesus in our world.
For Hansen, the world is haunted by a Creator, steeped in deep meaning and discoverable truth. Like Percy, he perceives the strangeness of existence. But also like Percy, Hansen’s writing is all about illuminating the signs and symbols that surround us, and thereby seeking to come nearer to the One behind the signs. For example, read Hansen’s response to an interviewer’s question in “Fiction as Encounter:”
I once read that according to ghost hunters, when you go into a house you almost never see a ghost by looking straight at it, but you can often see it out of the corner of your eye. I think that’s what happens in fiction: If you address something straight, people either accept it or reject it. But if you approach it tangentially, then they absorb it and it becomes more theirs.
Hansen’s essays, like Percy’s, can also be read as insights and interpretative lenses into his own fiction. The two writers cover different ground: Percy is fascinated with existentialism, science, the American South, psychology, and language; Hansen with history, the American West, crime, Scripture, and Ignatius. Both writers bring these deep interests into their fiction. Their topical nonfiction provides insight not only into their source material but also into what they are trying to accomplish in their narrative art.
In the third section of his new collection, Hansen directly addresses his own writing. He specifically discusses writing four of his historical biographies: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Exiles, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, and The Kid. These essays are some of the most enjoyable in the entire book. In them, the reader comes face-to-face with Hansen’s fascination with outlaws, outcasts, assassins, and adulterers. Here, Hansen’s empathetic imagination shines. For instance, of Billy the Kid, Hansen writes:
Reading everything I could about the Kid, I only found myself liking him more and wishing he’d had a father or mentor—which he persistently sought—in order to show him the right path. The older men he did find and admire were all soon killed.
Hansen also provides insight into more recent figures. Although I’ve long intended to dive into Thomas Merton’s work, I have yet to do it. Previously, everything I knew about Merton was contained in Paul Elie’s wonderful joint biography of Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, and Percy (again!), The Life You Save May Be Your Own—until I read Hansen’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” The essay is part Merton biography and part analysis of Merton’s WWII novel, My Argument with the Gestapo. I had never before heard of Merton’s sole novel; now I want to read this book that Hansen describes as “an interior monologue about Tom’s conflicted hankering, vacillation, uncertainty, and the naysaying voices that seemed to be railing against him,” a book that was “essentially a journal of his wistful intention to find solitude, renounce the world, and give up everything, even his writing talent, for a God who was the Solus Tuus.” I’m sold. Now I just need to get a copy.
Another of my favorite essays is “Shakespeare & Me.” Owing to my denseness as a reader, I was completely unaware how much of Hansen’s fiction owes a deep debt to Shakespeare. Not only does Hansen pay tribute to Shakespeare for the general form of much of his fiction—i.e., biographical fiction, akin to Shakespeare’s biographical plays—but Hansen also illustrates the specific illusions to Shakespeare’s work in many of his novels. The screwball comedy Isn’t It Romantic? was directly inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream; A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion owes much to Macbeth; the extended ending of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford owes its form to Julius Caesar; Sallie Chisum quotes Shakespeare in her conversations with Billy in The Kid. Why the captivation by Shakespeare? Hansen is ever in pursuit of the enduring, the infinite, and the eternal. And by his own estimation, “what seems to be everlasting is Shakespeare.”
Finally, I simply love “Why the West?” This short essay, perhaps inspired in form by Percy’s “Questions They Never Asked Me,” is composed of a series of twenty-five questions on the West. Here are a few representative questions:
Why does Big Sky country lift my spirits?
Why is it that the British automobile manufacturer Rover named its high-end model a Range Rover? And why are GMC SUVS named after the Alaskan wilderness?
Why is it that the cigarette named after the Duke of Marlborough, an English lord, was famously advertised by a cowboy?
Why do movie characters on the run always head west?
Why do so many Americans feel their country is overpopulated when 96 percent is parkland and open range?
Here’s one more question to add to the mix: why do I like this little essay so much? Again, I can’t help but think of Percy’s wacky and wonderful questions in Lost in the Cosmos. And again I’m reminded of the power of good literature, of the connections between writers that one finds, of the literary friends that one makes along the way. If you haven’t yet made friends with Hansen, Hotly in Pursuit of the Real is a great place to make his acquaintance. If you’re old friends, what a perfect way to continue the conversation. And if you’re so inclined, perhaps you might invite Percy to join in as well.
Jeffrey Wald is a writer and attorney whose work has previously appeared in periodicals such as Dappled Things, Touchstone, Philosophy Now, and elsewhere.