Skip to main content
from saturday's books section

David Adams RichardsBrian Atkinson

Not all books are for everyone, not even a book with the range and depth of David Adams Richards's God Is . Much like Terry Eagleton's recent Reason, Faith, and Revolution (reviewed in Books on July 25), God Is. (the period is part of the title) maintains that the trouble with those who contend that religion is false, ridiculous, hateful and actively harmful is that they are too conventional, too bourgeois, too suburban, too imprisoned by the need to be likeable, and like one another, to rise above ignorance and prejudice to consider anything that might not be a worthless caricature of a real thing.

Despite their obvious rhetorical differences - between a famously prickly novelist who has waged a long campaign against university-based literary critics and a professional literary critic who battled guerrilla-like from within the towers and cloisters of Oxbridge before turning to the grittier vitality of universities in Ireland and the North of England - Richards and Eagleton are both Catholics.

And both insist that Catholicism (despite all the things its priestly caste has done to disfigure it) has much to say about some vital questions - death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, wickedness - on which irreligious conservatives and radicals uphold embarrassed silence before dropping clever quips into dinner conversations, or ordering up pints all round.

By way of introduction, Richards declares that God Is. "is not a book that sets out to prove the existence of God, nor does it ask anyone to believe in any certain dogma. It is not a book about one faith, or one church - though I mention more than others my own church, which I fell away from and have struggled to come back to - an ongoing struggle, I assure you. ... It is a book that simply states God is present, and always was and will be whether we say we have faith or not. ... It is a book that says faith is an ... essential part of our existence. ... And no one, no matter how great, whosoever denied it, every really overcame it."

God is not a super-being or mega-manufacturer but a verb, a precondition of reality, the existential reason why Tolstoy's three conditions for greatness (Richards's touchstone) - goodness, simplicity, truth - can be had and maintained in spite of all odds. Richards's objective is to make as plain as possible through personal witness, multiple anecdotes and a close reading of his own novels and those novelists who speak most clearly to him - Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn in particular - that a person seeking liberty can and often does find God at the same time without succumbing to ignorance or patriarchal blindness.

If you've not yet read one (and preferably all) of Richards's most recent novels - River of the Brokenhearted (2004), The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), The Lost Highway (2007), God Is. will make less sense than it ought to. How likely is it that you've read them?

In 2000, Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost and Richards's Mercy Among the Children co-won the Giller Prize. Good as Mercy is, and it is very, very good - The Washington Post called it "a contemporary masterpiece ... in the ... tradition of Tolstoy, Camus and Melville" - the novels that follow take wider-angled, more fully focused leaps into the realm of greatness, but had little effect on prize-giving juries with their promotional powers. Is it that Richards doesn't employ irony? (He's very humorous, but his comedy is rooted in an absurdist's delight in the illogicality of thinking processes raddled by alcohol and drugs or addled by greed and vengeance.) Or is it that his books burst with joys that emerge from tragedy, not in spite of it? Or is it that he's just too scathing about middle-class people who sacrifice simple decency on the altar of social acceptability?

It's certainly not through any lack of plot, character or clarity in his storytelling. Richards's novels have beginnings, middles and ends in exactly that order. As a storyteller, he has a better ear for speech patterns, a better eye for details of dress and manners, and a more realistic feeling for the effects of physical and emotional deprivation than any contemporary not named Joan Barfoot (who is even less appreciated by literary powers-that-be). At this late date in both their careers, can it be that taste-makers are as clueless about Richards's visionary poetics as they are about Barfoot's uncondescending, sardonic, sly, subversive, unembarrassed honesty?

In God Is., Richards is forthright about his failings as husband, father, family man, friend. But he's anti-autobiographical in the way Eagleton is (their narrative threads are the unities found in a tragic view of the world, not in fragments of lives served up as tales of progress from birth to old age).

In his final pages, Richards begins referring to God Is. as a "polemic," but it's better described as an unconventional prose-poem in three movements, extolling plain speaking about the mysterious moments that transformed the child born lame on the left side and who became the drinking companion of arsonists, thieves, drug dealers and murderers, into the mature writer too often called "our Tolstoy" and too rarely "our Blake."

"One cannot, somehow, think of him as a revolutionary, in the sense that James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence are revolutionaries, yet his contribution to literature is as original as theirs. He has given us a new formula. He is of the generation and yet not of it. His novels are only possible because he has cut himself off from twentieth-century civilization, and yet could not have been written in no other century than this. He owes little or nothing to contemporary literature; all his debts are to the past. ... But it is probable that future generations will regard him as standing of the same relation to this generation as Blake did to his." So wrote British literary critic William Hunter of British novelist T.F. Powys (1875-1953), but it's just as true of David Adams Richards.

The Friends of Meager Fortune is one of the greatest of all Canadian novels. Read it, if you haven't, and discover a small, essentially rural world of lumbermen and their teams of horses that is large enough to contain every quality ever imagined in mud and God. Read it and discover a world elastic enough that love and death, good and evil, can manifest themselves in characters who are honourable or despicable while serving larger purposes as symbols and allegories of an unorthodox Christianity. Read God Is. afterward. Then it will be for you, even if, like Emerson, when you look at the Roman Church, you see nothing but "millinery and imbecility."

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof is the author of Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief.