One more selection from the preface of my new novel… and by the way, Seven Demons Worse was its title under a very different and much earlier guise. The new release is titled Worse by Seven.
In Seven Demons, Evans moves along in Part Three to seek out a desert space where he… does what? Almost kills himself with idle wandering until he decides to have another go at life? The nature of his “redemption” while straying through a sandy wilderness far west of his university never becomes clear. In the version of the novel before you, Evans’s reanimation through his acquaintance with Carmen makes his journey west far more comprehensible, I believe (I hope), though he himself constantly questions its purpose. I would argue that his purpose is illuminated by his explicit frustration in trying to find it. He’s looking for his soul. Ostensibly, he has to go back and mop up after resigning his professorship by mail. An apartment must be emptied, a car sold… these are details that I had ignored earlier, but that a story of life in the real world cannot afford to pass by. Yet he understands from the start that such details are the trip’s pretext. He is not in a position, psychologically or spiritually, simply to have another go at being happy with yet another woman whom he has met quite casually and treated rather better than her recent predecessors. He no longer trusts his judgment: he has fooled himself too often in relying on his compromised conscience. He needs to see a rigorous, objective test run on his moral stamina, and perhaps even more on his sheer physical self-control (which is pretty much the same thing, if you stop and think). He continues westward, therefore, with an irresistible inclination to put himself in harm’s way.
I remember being forced to read one of Norman Mailer’s novels as a college freshman, and I recall the protagonist as a virulent womanizer whose addiction to sex has diminished his manly fortitude practically to nothing in his own eyes. (I observe this, by the way, to be a fully—if ironically—genuine consequence of skirt-chasing: men actually lose their self-respect as virile men.) Mailer’s character ends up walking along the parapet of a skyscraper to restore a bit of his soul’s energy. In the original version of my narrative, I can’t see Evans as having done anything much different in traipsing through a space resembling New Mexico’s White Sands and being reprieved from death only by a blind chance. That’s not the end I wanted. It doesn’t bring together all the story’s tortuous (and torturous) strands: the academic world full of haughty hypocrisy, the beloved wife snatched away rudely, the affairs with campus carnivores intended to be a kind of fist-shaking at heaven… the domineering mother, the elusive father, the small-town whited-sepulcher church… the budding love of a worthy but vulnerable human being who must not be mishandled any further… all of these sources of tension must be addressed. What is essentially a Maileresque dance atop a skyscraper doesn’t address any of them—and most certainly does not propose a Christian resolution.
If my “Christian” critics had wanted to lance Seven Demons Worse at its most exposed point, their target should have been the ending. Indeed, if I had staged some supernatural conversion in the sand dunes where Evans falls on his knees, cries, “I hear you, Jesus—you died on the cross for my sins!” and blubbers himself into ecstasy, most of my critics would probably have considered a stay of execution for me. But here I will share a confession of my own. I have never been able to fathom the spiritual content of the boo-hooing displayed at the thought of the Savior’s being cruelly butchered because the justly enraged Father demands a blood sacrifice. The ritual analogies attempted here simply muddy up the terms of redemption impossibly for me; I cannot find in this jumble of scapegoating and human sacrifice a compelling expression of how the wayward heart might be realigned toward humility, hope, and the worship of goodness. Maybe it’s my fault. Like Evans, I’m sure I have some missing pieces. As his literary creator, though, I cannot put into Evans’s experience sentiments that have no basis in my own. The God he seeks must be the God I have sought—and whatever peace and renewal he finds must be such as I have found.
Suffering, again, is an indispensable element of the formula: Evans must realize that suffering belongs to the righteous life in this vale of tears called Earth. The Beatitudes promise us no less. It is therefore unjust and immature to rebuke God because we suffer. If our suffering is “good suffering”, it indeed demonstrates that we are followers of God (who ended up on the Cross in trying to reach us through a fully human form). Yet there is also such a thing as bad suffering. Evans has managed to consume his fill of this during his wild run at the campus life’s “there is no God—I’m in control” caliber of pleasure. Indeed, he has discovered that Hell can scarcely be anything other than separation from God in a world entirely of one’s own making—right down to its luxurious indulgences.
The reality of bad suffering, then, must be balanced against the reality of good suffering. I cannot have Evans exiting the desert triumphantly with the mere dictum in his mouth, “Get back to doing your duty, and don’t ask questions” (or, as the great American philosopher Bill Belichick expresses it more succinctly, “Do your job”). This would be just a slight repackaging of his mother’s cultic devotion to building a superior bloodline while suppressing all personal affections that interfere. The duty at issue might be of a much higher sort—but the dedication to it would still be abject and without joy. Somewhere in his desperate desert meander, Evans has to discover joy.
In my first draft of the utter rewrite (and, by Part Three, I had thrown Seven Demons aside completely and was composing fresh), Evans’s “revelation” emerges from his mouth in the words, “Try again—try harder!” The mere determination to take one more stab at doing the right thing in life manifests an awareness that one has been forgiven past sins. Hence “try again” correctly states part of a truly Christian formula, I would argue, because it implies that all the figures on the ledger’s “debit” side have been canceled. You don’t start a new business if your old business hasn’t paid off its debts.
Now, being liberated to go forth and try again can certainly stir the heart to joy. Yet, as a formula, it still loiters dangerously close to the faithful legionnaire’s commitment to his marching orders. We mustn’t send Evans away to re-live the Charge of the Light Brigade. I therefore—after much anguish and many deleted phrases—amended the “try harder” part of the formula to this: “Try to find joy in how hard it is” (with “it” understood as the first part: “try harder”). To take joy in a formidable challenge is, it seems to me, a quite natural human response. The less arbitrary and more meaningful the challenge, the greater the joy, even in the event of ultimate failure. Knowing that you almost succeeded in leaping from your second-story window onto the oak tree’s limb when you broke your leg may give satisfaction to a fool: knowing that you saved two of three children rushing down-river in a flood brings a profound peace that mitigates the one failure, and that endures a lifetime. Is that peace a joy? We should strive to make it so, if only a sad joy. Though still embedded in suffering and regret, it also rests firmly on a sense of personal worth won through worthy endeavor. Try… and try to find joy in how hard it is.
Aware that we are weak and fallible human beings who must always come up a bit short—and aware, too, that God forgives us such inadequacy—we must try to recognize in our second and third (and seven times seventy) attempts an amplitude, a generosity, that defines the life of faith. The closest analogy I can think of would be one drawn from the sporting life—a kind of illumination dear not only to Coach Belichick, but to Saint Paul. I’ve heard many interviews of Hall-of-Fame baseball players where an admiring sportscaster, wide-eyed and breathless, asks the star about the game where he hit three home runs or struck out fifteen hitters. The immortal answers perfunctorily, perhaps with a touch of coolness. Then the interviewer asks about his subject’s fondest memory. The star’s face brightens, and he proceeds to share details of a fourteen-inning playoff game which featured, perhaps, no significant contribution of his own. What he recalls is the thrill of being utterly absorbed in an effort with everyone else on both teams—an effort whose boundaries were respected by all and whose worthiness of their dedication none of them questioned. The recollected joy here is the joy of trying, of striving in a complex and difficult contest. One side would win at last and one side lose. Yet all parties would look back, once the pain of failure had subsided, with pride and… and joy.
I believe Evans discovers this hidden and critical secret about suffering in God’s cause as he babbles into an empty desert sky. He finally understands that he was happier having spent one brief year with his wife than he could ever be over a long career of sharing beds with willing luminaries of the liberated, God-free intelligentsia—infinitely happier, even had he known in advance that they two would have only one year together. He realizes, likewise, that he will find happiness with Carmen not because he will necessarily make her happy or be made happy by her, but because he and she are both prepared to dedicate themselves fully to the attempt. For in the attempt lies the success… in the unlimited surmounting of small failures.
I don’t imagine that my formula will strike everyone as quite what a Christian should be proposing. I know that many, for instance, will insist upon some “free gift” packaging of salvation that absolves the ecstatic believer even from the obligation to try (let alone try harder) at doing good. This preference for what was called “enthusiasm” a couple of centuries ago—for the undiluted, irrational gush of rapturous adoration—has virtually destroyed the “maleness” of Christianity in our time, I fear. Leon Podles published a book longer ago than the appearance of Seven Demons Worse about the unhappy feminization of Catholicism; and not only has the Roman faith not recovered the ground lost with males over the intervening years, but it has lost much more—in the company, of course, of Protestant denominations spanning the entire spectrum of liturgical practice. Doctrine regarding sexual conduct is perhaps more illustrative of this fatal anemia than most of the church’s many other “evolving” positions. We are not to judge. Nobody, it seems, is to judge anything. Everything’s “okay” (or, as a prophetic book title from 1967 put it, “You’re okay, I’m okay”). Struggle is gone, because struggle produces suffering, and suffering cannot be good. Why (we’re told), the whole point of the Christian faith is to eradicate suffering! How will we ever do this if we make severe demands of ourselves or frown upon our fellows for mounting only a token defense of principle? Find joy in the challenge of accomplishing our high mission? But our mission (we’re told) is precisely to relieve ourselves and others of challenges!
Thus the new Christian—the new false Christianity. When my tale began life as Seven Demons Worse, it was rejected by many of the organized faith for daring to pry open a forbidden closet’s door. Now, as Worse by Seven, I’m sure it will be rejected by just as many who ostensibly profess the same faith because it “insensitively” proclaims the necessity of laboring up a steep, high staircase. Pardon me a smile at the irony of my having kept Baudelaire’s lines to open Part One in both versions. For daring to hint at the existence of Lesbian love, “Delphine et Hippolyte” won the poet a few days of legal detention in the midst of France’s smug, stodgy nineteenth century. Today the European Union’s arbiters of taste and manners would likely fine him a few thousand Euros—and also return him to jail—for hinting that anything whatever about Lesbian love was at all wrong in the least. Huston Evans is no Charles Baudelaire: he fights his way through deep melancholy to a triumphant sense of life’s worth in the context of a life that never ends. That doesn’t mean, however, that he should expect any better fate in the hands of the censors who define the “acceptable” in this world. Indeed, his sins are more damning for being more robust. Though he is only a fictional character, he may yet land me in Siberia.