Monday, March 2, 2020

The Gulf by Belle Boggs

I heard an interview with Belle Boggs discussing this novel on the Bookin’ podcast, so I was a little disappointed to have missed the first two thirds of her reading/conversation with Tupelo Hassman at the NC Book Festival last weekend. The premise of The Gulf places the book exactly in my wheelhouse; a low residency school for evangelical Christians that is at least partially a scam run by a couple of atheists. As an agnostic and former evangelical, this is irresistible to me.

Satirizing evangelicals can go off the rails really easily. The Abstinence Teacher, for instance, is a funny and well-written book. It is also incredibly condescending. Even though I mostly agreed with its politics, its portrayal of christians had no counterweight; the only christian in the book who was written as a well rounded character eventually abandoned it. As someone who also abandoned the faith, that is a tempting narrative. But it is entirely too easy to mock a group of people while not allowing them to be fully formed people, and I couldn’t stand it. As Kim Stanley Robinson said at the Festival, quoting or paraphrasing someone, I believe, “You have an ideology, and I have a well formed political theory,” and, “ideologies are an imaginary relationship to something real.” It is easy to cast the other side in the worst light, and ignore one’s own faults. Fortunately, Boggs understands this. As a poetry instructor tells Janine Gray, one of the poets at the school in The Gulf, referring to Terry Schiavo, the subject of her poem cycle, "You must allow her some complexity, Janine. If you're going to invite yourself into someone else's mind you have to accept that it's messy in there." I was on edge the entire time. Was Boggs going to make her Christian characters merely gullible rubes? Fortunately she landed the ship without falling into that trap.

That said, some Christians might be gullible rubes. Marianne Stuart, an atheist from Virginia who moved to NYC to write poetry,  makes an off-handed joke to Eric Osborne, her then boyfriend, that they should make a low residency writing school to rip off evangelicals. She doesn’t take it seriously but years later, Eric, now her ex-fiance, actually sets it up with his brother and a relatively rich aunt. The novel opens as Marianne is sorting through the applications for the program, which will take place at an abandoned hotel owned by Eric’s aunt on the Gulf Coast of Florida. While the situation is very funny, Boggs very wisely doesn’t go for cheap laughs; rather she makes it into an ethical dilemma for Marianne. The school gets off to a better than expected start, and Marianne really questions her involvement. This self questioning only intensifies when Eric’s brother brings a company that runs right wing diploma mills for extra funding.

This could make for a pretty good novel in and of itself, but what elevates The Gulf is the character of Janine, one of the participants in the workshop. She is a relatively new poet and fairly devout believer. Her poems are about Terry Sciavo and the political storm that formed around her coma and the decision about whether or not to take her off life support. This could be another chance to take cheap shots, but Boggs doesn’t. The third person narration alternates primarily between Marianne’s perspective and Janine’s.

This is not to say that the book is not funny. It is often hilarious, sometimes at the expense of people who are gullible. Nor that the book is not critical of Christianity. Especially the cynical manipulation of Christians by the inspirational market. This is another thing I appreciated; she makes a point to differentiate between this type of book and works by people who happen to be Christian. Even as an agnostic I love at least some works by Flannery O’Connor, Gene Wolfe, Graham Greene, Annie Dillard, Walker Percy, Tim Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Greg Garrett, Vinita Hampton Wright, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner, John Berryman, CS Lewis and others I’m sure I’m forgetting at the moment. There is a wide array of ideology here and I disagree with all of them to some degree or another, but I still appreciate their work. Marianne might not be searching for the next person to join that group, but she really does actually try to differentiate between the applicants and create a workable group. Some of the writers aspire to be writers who are Christians, and some would be the type that might be easier marks. As she clashes with the corporation that ends up more or less owning the place, she actually has a believable arc of struggling with an ethical problem and growing as a result.

As an agnostic and a fan of a wide array of writing, I more easily identify with the people running the school. As an ex-Evangelical, I know that Christians are not their portrayals in most pop culture. The novel clearly falls on the liberal side of the culture wars, but it does not (or does not only) argue against a straw man. And above all, the novel is well written and entertaining, which cannot be said of a lot of books this ideological. Boggs understands that the book has to work as a book or the ideological stuff is merely preaching to the choir. I can’t remember if it was her or Hassman who said in answer to a question from the audience that she hadn’t gotten a lot of pushback from evangelicals who read it because they didn’t see themselves as the type of Christian being criticized. It’s the spiritual version of the Chris Rock joke: “She ain’t talking about me!” I think it helps that Boggs, while she is very much criticizing a certain type of political and consumerist Christianity, treats the specific Christians in question as people and gives a degree of respect on that ground. I enjoyed this immensely on first reading; now that I have the shape of the thing in my mind, I think I will enjoy it even more on rereading.

Highly Recommended.

Festival Exceptions, Library Books, Etc 2020 4/35

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