The jacket blurbs and teaser for Lies of the Saints, Erin McGraw’s fine collection of stories from 1996 (a New York Times Notable Book that year) don’t even hint at their Catholic armature. In these days, which can seem pretty godless, such an omission isn’t surprising. We’re invited by her fellow writers and publisher to read her work for its humorous and darkly ironic look at domestic life in small-town America. We’re to imagine getting comfy under a crocheted afghan on an overstuffed sofa, opening her book and meeting people from East Jesus who are just like us. But McGraw and her characters part company with many of us at the altar, and though their dilemmas may be as secular as yours or mine, there are miracles afoot, and questions concerning faith’s role abound.
The title is a pun on Lives of the Saints, that timeless compendium stuck away on the shelves of many Catholic households and consulted about as often as the Douay Bible. As McGraw notes in her essay “My Parents’ Religion” in the Winter/Spring 1999 issue of Image, “To say that most Catholics are unschooled in the Bible is to understate mightily; most Catholics are lucky if they can quote a shaky Beatitude.”
Thank God McGraw ignored the dictum that discourages Catholics from reading the Bible! After unsuccessfully attempting it as a teenager, she went back years later:
unsystematically skipping anything that bored me, such as Leviticus â€“ I was in my thirties, and divorced, and hungry for guidance. By that time the actions of characters in the grip of raging jealousy or desire, the many categories of ugly human want, no longer seemed so strange. I started to find a number of familiar impulses ascribed to the Israelites: pride, envy, cowardice, occasional moments of generosity or devotion. The book spoke to me, but not in the heavenly voice I had expected to hear. Instead, the voices of the Bible bickered, complained, calculated, whined. They also rose in sweet praise, but that praise was always set against a background of more familiar fretting and grumbling.
That description applies wholly to the fictional voices in Lies, where couples snipe at one another, women vacillate between yearning for recklessness and control, and even children complain that prayers aren’t answered to their liking and the burdens placed on them by God are too heavy to bear. With efficient prose, masterful pacing and dialogue so true and fluid you can almost hear it aloud in the room as you read, McGraw assembles plots as parables, conversation as plainsong.
McGraw’s strength stems from being both Catholic and catholic, but even if you’ve never set foot in the One True Church or worn the awful pleats of plaid uniform skirts, you can read her collection for its quiet drama and absolute craft. She’s in control of her metaphors whether they’re the loaves and fishes or the tango, and her spectrum is that divinely broad. Saying she stresses her faith as framework does not mean you’ll find priests appearing in pivotal roles or drives to and from the confessional as settings for character revelation. It’s more likely to be a drive to the grocery store or an elementary school â€“ the latter a public one without nuns gliding through the hallways, as in “A Suburban Story” in which an ordinary housewife and mother finds herself performing the miraculous. McGraw doesn’t write from the pew or the pulpit, and yet her stories possess a steady assurance, the pulse of someone fingering the decades of a rosary. The movement from one bead or moment to the next has the seamless practiced progression of known prayer â€“ with all its power to redeem the reader. Unlike the cynical faithlessness of a writer like Francine Prose, McGraw is grounded in the mystery. “I talk about God’s hand in our lives, a hand my husband is not at all sure he sees. My own certainty of that hand has never wavered.” Though we might side with her husband (poet Andrew Hudgins) when it comes to a spiritual skepticism, we have to be persuaded that her religious practice strengthens her fiction.
These are Catholics who swear, who make fun of the homilies, who let sarcastic humor be both their weapon and mainstay. Her characters, churchgoing or not, are often experts at the snappy comeback, so effective in its distancing. But the acerbic retorts are gentler than Prose’s, even as they hit the mark, because McGraw’s love for the people she writes about is enormous. In “Return of the Argentine Tango Masters,” the dance of a failed marriage is revisited as the ex-husband Rafe returns to plague his wife Gwen via her call-in radio show. When Rafe maneuvers his way into teaching her small-town audience the tango, Gwen’s husband Leo is eager to meet the challenge, both to his dancing ability and his primacy in her heart.
She was still gazing into her untouched coffee when Leo pivoted into the kitchen, his feet inscribing half-moons on the floor. “He didn’t dance like that before,” Gwen said.
“I didn’t think so. You wouldn’t have forgotten.”
Gwen shuddered. “Did you see the women around him after the class was over?”
“Why are you surprised? He came in like Rudolph Valentino. I’d love to be able to move like that.”
“Don’t even say it,” she said.
He darkened his voice. “I’d come home from work and drag you into my arms.”
“I fall into your arms, anyway.”
“Maybe once,” he said, swiveling toward her and away from her, “I want to force you.”
“And suddenly I seem forceable,” Gwen said through gritted teeth. “Is that what you’re saying here?”
“Listen up,” he said, finally standing still. “I just want to learn the tango.”
“The tango masters are gone.”
“You’re not gone.”
“No,” she allowed slowly. “But I’ve forgotten.”
“Give it a try. One step will lead to the next.”
“No, it won’t,” she said, standing up. “I can’t teach you what I don’t remember.”
“You did it with Rafe.”
“He did it with me. Don’t ask me to go backwards, Leo.”
Here and elsewhere in the collection, McGraw is far less self-conscious than Prose. Even the most unlikely couples don’t feel thrown together for their dramatic potential but seem predestined to be one, like our own real selves, not contrived to inhabit a story’s space and illustrate a set theme or agenda.
Often in these stories, people are desperately trying to earn a living â€“ hoping to win the lottery, waiting for their ships to come in. And there’s nothing hip about these folks. In fact, McGraw assiduously avoids brand-name references and there’s an almost complete absence of language that would date her work.
In the final story, “Russ,” we learn that Saint Clare is the patron saint of television, Saint Fiacre of those dying of syphilis, St. Hubert for healthy dogs, St. Sithney for mad ones and that there are no patron saints for cats. There’s something decidedly offbeat in this wacky list of saints and what they sponsor. This is just like McGraw to turn up the humor when a family’s conversation turns churchly. It could only come from one so steeped in her religion that she knows its curiosities and how especially they can deploy meaning, evoke mood, bring on laughter. She’s a stickler for details that ground the reader, even as the issues confronting her characters sometimes seem to glow with the unearthly translucency of a stained glass window. The protagonist of “Russ,” Mary Grace, writes, “There is nothing in heaven or on earth that I don’t want.” This seems to me a statement of supreme faith, wanting everything that’s to come no matter what it is. Read these stories, and there’ll be nothing in heaven or on earth that you won’t get â€“ nothing that matters anyway.