Hope on Ice: The Felicitous Fiction of Jon Hassler

Whenever I read the novels of Jon Hassler, whose funny and beautifully crafted stories, mostly about Catholics in the upper Midwest, call to mind his fellow Minnesotan and Catholic writer, the late J.F. Powers, I wonder what it’s like to be one of the best American novelists alive, yet largely unknown beyond a coterie of fanatical admirers such as myself.

It’s actually Hassler’s own fault, damn it. He writes about people—Catholic priests—and situations—the predicaments in with Catholic priests find themselves because they are all too human—that are alien to the purveyors of current literary fashion. Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym, and Powers also wrote droll stories about men of the cloth. That was to be expected in Trollope’s time, when the clerical life with its attendant benefices was a respectable career track for young Victorians and thus a ready topic for satire. But the motif was already quaint by the 1950s, when Pym was writing her delicious tales of dotty High Anglican vicars and the spinsters smitten by them. And Powers’s darkly humorous fiction, whose subjects are almost always Catholic priests, is respected but generally misunderstood by the literary establishment. So it is not surprising that Hassler, writing about a generation after Powers, has simply been ignored by most of the critics.

Catholicism, of course, provides a novelist whose subject is clerical life an extra something in the form of celibacy. But herein lies a paradox: While celibacy may be excellent fodder for developing a moral dilemma, it is incomprehensible as a lifestyle choice to most of the people who inhabit literary culture today. In a recent survey of Powers’s work in the New Yorker, for example, critic James Wood maintained that Powers’s literary priests were unable to deal with sex. And the plot of my favorite Hassler novel, Dear James (1993), is not likely to create buzz at a New York cocktail party.

Agatha McGee, the novel’s heroine, is a starchy, slightly dictatorial retired schoolteacher in Hassler’s fictional town of Stagger- ford, Minnesota. She is an old-fashioned Catholic who insists that after the Second Vatican Council, the Church entered the “new Dark Age.” She refuses to eat meat on Fridays, even though the Vatican long ago relaxed the prohibition. “I see we’re being holier than Rome again tonight,” an amused friend teases her on one of her meatless Fridays. “Being holier than Rome is no fun since they made it so easy,” she sniffs in response. For several years, Agatha has been pouring out her innermost thoughts in letters to James O’Hannon, another devout older Catholic. Though she has never actually met her pen pal—he lives in Ireland and she, of course, in Minnesota—she has clearly fallen in love with him.

When Agatha undertakes a pilgrimage to Ireland, the reader suspects that part of the reason for the journey is to meet James in person. As she sits ready to surprise him inside his parish church in Ballybegs, it is she who gets the shock: James shows up vested for Mass. Struggling with his own loneliness, he has neglected to inform Agatha that he is a priest. She is devastated.

To be understood, let alone applauded, by leaders of literary opinion today, Dear James would have to end with James’s realization, however belatedly, that his vow of priestly celibacy was repressive and arbitrary. He would forsake the priesthood for a more genuine form of fulfillment: marrying Agatha or at least having an affair with her. What happens in Hassler’s novel is actually far more interesting and original. Agatha eventually forgives James for his deception and comes to terms with their love by comparing it to the chaste affection of St. Francis and St. Clare. Oh yes, and did I mention how James and Agatha “met” by pen in the first place? Both had letters expressing their dislike of liturgical innovation published in the Fortress, a Catholic periodical. Not exactly the stuff of Waiting for Mr. Goodbar.

Ice and Snow

A comparison of Hassler and Powers is inevitable. For one thing, they both write about the same German/Scandinavian culture—everybody in their books seems to be either Catholic or Lutheran in religion—of the remote rural reaches of Minnesota and Illinois. At Powers’s death in 1999, the essayist Richard Rodriguez described the territory of his fiction as a flat, cold land of small towns and bank foreclosures halfway between Garrison Keillor and Sinclair Lewis. From a purely meteorological point of view, Hassler’s novels typically take place in a winter world that seems much colder than that of Powers: They always include lots of ice—ice fishing, driving on the ice, and even death by ice, while the season in Powers’s stories is often the steamy Minnesota summer. There’s a certain scruffiness in Hassler that Powers lacks.

It should come as no surprise that Hassler and Powers troll the same environment for material. Both taught at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, a Benedictine-affiliated institution that has been a hotbed of the sort of liturgical experimentation that so dismays Agatha and James in Hassler’s book. Like those two, Powers was described during his lifetime as a “holdout” against such trendiness. “There isn’t anything the Church can do that it hasn’t done to disillusion me,” he said in a 1985 interview. And Hassler, although apparently more at ease with the post-Vatican II Church, once told journalist Anne M. Cormier that Agatha represented “that sort of inflexible, backward-looking side of me.”

Powers was born in 1917, and Hassler in 1933. Thus Hassler was a younger man than Powers, in his 30s, when the Catholic Church underwent what was outwardly a sea change after the close of Vatican II in 1965. Powers was approaching 50 at the time, a lifelong curmudgeon who had in his youth spent 13 months in prison for refusing as a pacifist to serve in the military during World War II. Powers always remained a faithful son of the Church. But it probably wasn’t easy. He once confided to a priest the reason he always sat in the same pew of the church balcony: The acoustics were so bad there that he couldn’t hear a word of the liturgy or the sermon.

Powers was a master at portraying preconciliar American Catholicism during what the nostalgic regard as the American Church’s halcyon 1950s. Powers had a somewhat more jaundiced view of that self-satisfied era. His semi-satirical novel Morte D’Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963, concerns Father Urban, a worldly member of the Clementines, a fictional religious order, who has a gift for cultivating rich Catholics as potential contributors. The priests in Powers’s fiction, men committed to the eternal, are often caught up in the tragicomedy of quotidian ambitions and disappointments: relaxing in the Barcalounger, driving the Packard, being dominated by the holy terror of a pastor or housekeeper, moving up the ecclesiastical career ladder to a better parish.

Powers’s priests are often glad-handers or martinets (the laity doesn’t fare much better in his stories), but he does sometimes deal with more weighty matters. In “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” one of the most haunting short stories I’ve ever read, the main character is a Franciscan priest, Father Didymus, struggling with fear and pride even on his deathbed. Powers writes: “Now, so close to sublimity, or perhaps only tempted to believe so (the Devil is most wily at the death-bed), he was beset by the grossest distractions. This was to be expected, he knew, as indelible in the order of things: the bingo game going on under the Cross for the seamless garment of the Son of Man: everywhere the sign of contradiction, and always.”

Sister Judy and Bishop Dick

What Powers did for the Church before 1965, Hassler does for the contemporary Church. Although the stalwart Agatha McGee of Dear James is obviously his favorite and most autobiographical character, he, unlike Agatha, is more bemused by than angry at the contemporary Church.

Another of his characters, Sister Judy Juba, who edifies her confirmation class by comparing the creation of the world to “God laying an egg,” is a marvelously funny post- Vatican II creation. She has that jolly hockey-sticks giddiness that characterizes so much of the world today, both inside and outside the Church. Agatha assesses her: “Though her innocence made her dangerous, she meant well.” Sister Judy is almost maniacally outgoing. Father Finn, the cigar-smoking pastor of St. Isidore’s Church in Staggerford, admits that he “liked to be busy with his hands,” when “confronted with Sister Judy, a toucher.” Another of Hassler’s post-Vatican II characters who made me laugh out loud as I read Dear James is the jazz-loving, aggressively informal Bishop Richard (“Call me Dick”) Baker.

The conflict between tradition and innovation in current Catholic practice supplies Hassler with endless material for humor. Agatha, for example, still hasn’t forgotten the day during the 1970s when the nuns at the local convent (including Sister Judy) threw off their habits and subjected themselves to the weekly ministrations of Mr. Rick, a local beautician of less than the first order. Hassler writes that Agatha “smiled, recalling the seven identical hairdos emerging from the convent on Friday mornings. ‘What in the world made you choose Mr. Rick? He made you all look like Brillo pads.” Sister Judy replies that the nuns picked Mr. Rick because he was “a Catholic, and he was a man.”

Hassler also captures some of the darker aspects of contemporary Catholicism. Father Finn’s brother, Albert, a twice-divorced college professor, is that all-too-familiar Catholic type, the ex-seminarian with a grudge against the Church. Professor Finn takes his students on what he calls his “Galileo tours” of Italy, where he informs them, “The Church has all this unimaginable wealth and power, and all Galileo had was the truth—he didn’t stand a chance.”

In one of Hassler’s loveliest scenes toward the end of Dear James, Professor Finn loudly tells a group of his students he is leading on a tour of the Vatican that if they wait long enough, they’ll see “some poor dope” kissing the toe of St. Peter’s statue. James and Agatha, who have made a pilgrimage to Rome together, happen to overhear the remark. James steps forward to kiss the toe and, “with a little flourish and sidestep shuffle (reminiscent, thought Agatha, of Jimmy Durante in the early days of television),” says, “That’s how poor dopes do it.”

Staggerford Types

While Catholics will especially relish Hassler’s incisive portraits of American Catholicism in his novels, which return again and again to the denizens of Staggerford, everyone who grew up in a tight-knit community will recognize the atmosphere: the small-town ways of knowing people and yet not knowing them, the intergenerational friendships, and the local stalwarts like Agatha, who has taught generations of children at St. Isidore’s and whose mission is to uphold standards.

Indeed, Hassler is usually genial and forgiving when dealing with human foibles and shortcomings. Meet Mrs. Stevenson, the principal’s wife in Hassler’s 1977 novel, Staggerford, now nearly a cult classic: “Mrs. Stevenson was a formidable, triple-chinned woman, trussed and stayed…altogether more human since the last faculty dinner, when a loud belch took her by surprise.” Another Staggerford character, Anna Thea Workman, viewing the corpse of Miles Pruitt, a popular schoolteacher, laid out in his coffin, “noticed that Miles’ double chin was not so prominent when he lay on his back.”

Imogene Kite is another one of those small-town types: the insatiable gossip. In Dear James, she is unhappily domiciled in the city of St. Paul, but she misses Staggerford, which had been “her course of study, its gossip her textbook?’ Hassler writes. “You couldn’t just pull up stakes and put this out of your mind. You had to somehow find out what the next chapter of gossip revealed—who went broke, who gave birth, who died of what. St. Paul was discouragingly full of people she had no knowledge of.”

In her ferretlike way, Imogene discovers Agatha’s letters, which reveal that the schoolteacher, for all her piety, is actually a shrewd and not always flattering observer of her fellow Staggerfordians. After reading the letters (and taping them), Imogene informs Sister Judy that Agatha “is not the woman you think she is,” then flies into a rage when the nun refuses to rise to the bait. So Imogene tries to get Sister Judy to feel sorry for her: “‘Agatha says my mother is a warm body with a dead mind.’ Sister Judith suppressed a giggle.” It is a perfect meeting of small-town Americana and post-Vatican II Catholicism.

The Temptations of Priests

In Powers’s second (and only other) novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, begun in 1964 but not published until 1988, he made a Hassler-like effort to tackle the post-Vatican II Church. He did a passable job, but the book has an uncomfortable feel. The main character, Father Joe Hackett, stands somewhere between the world of Father Urban and that of Sister Judy. Father Hackett—who wakes up one morning after a night with his pal, Father Lefty Beeman, in the Little John Room of the Robin Hood Lounge (a small- town steak house that figures comically in Powers’s fiction) with the recollection that in his drunken state he might have hired a sharpie named “Buzz” to print the parish bulletin—battles the classic temptation of the preconciliar Irish clergy, booze. This is not the existentially troubled post-Vatican II priesthood, although Powers tried to update his story with a 1960s plotline revolving around the Vietnam War.

While Powers’s Father Hackett is a fundamentally old- fashioned priest whose temptations are old-fashioned, Father Frank Healy, the protagonist of another of Hassler’s best novels, North of Hope (1990), is a priest of our own time. His struggle isn’t with the bottle or the cantankerous bishop but with his vow of celibacy and his very vocation. North of Hope opens when the teenaged Frank, still in high school, spots Libby Girard, the new girl in town, at a movie theater. “He considered it something of a miracle that a girl so dazzling should come to live in a town so dull.” As he watches Libby leave, he hears a voice: She’s the one.

Frank, who has been told (actually, lied to) that it was his dying mother’s wish that he become a priest, enters the seminary after Libby becomes pregnant by another boy. A few years later, Libby, fleeing her shotgun marriage with her little daughter, visits him at the seminary and begs him to leave with her. Frank, by now happy in his new life and aspiring to follow in the footsteps of a heroic 19th-century missionary to the Ojibway Indians named Father Zell (who had hastened his death by hypothermia by rigorous fasting en route to say Mass) turns her down. But “half- expecting a voice to tell him—as a voice had told him five years before—She’s the one,” Frank begs God to keep Libby away from him: “And God did, for twenty-three years.”

Frank is next thrown into contact with Libby at a time of crisis for both. Libby’s crisis involves her brutal second husband, a doctor who deals drugs on the side, and her daughter, Velma, who has a history of mental illness and promiscuity. Frank’s crisis involves his calling to the priesthood. Now in his 40s, he has a “big leak” in his spirit. He has been suffering from depression since the closing of Aquinas Academy, the flea-bitten Catholic college where he had taught for most of his career. At his request, Bishop Baker has allowed him to return to his hometown (not Stagger- ford, but nearby) to live in the rectory with his boyhood idol, Msgr. Adrian Lawrence, and to serve the Ojibway like the saintly Father Zell. Libby and her husband, the evil Dr. Pearsall, have also come to the reservation to serve the Ojibway, although none too willingly, as Pearsall otherwise faces a jail term and loss of his medical license for selling drugs.

When Velma is accused of murdering one of her lovers and placed in a mental unit (called the Hope Ward—hence the book’s title), Libby begins to depend on Frank. To his dismay, Frank hears that voice again, and the new temptation to run off with her is nearly irresistible. But in the world of Hassler, as in a Shakespearean comedy, everything comes out aright. Frank regains his vocation and, with Msgr. Lawrence’s aid, is able to offer Libby and Velma genuine help, even saving Libby’s life. And in the world of Hassler, the evil also get their just deserts: Dr. Pearsall drowns in a hole in the frozen lake. Toad Majerus, a midget tormented by another of Velma’s lovers, the vile Judge Bigelow, manages to turn the tables on him.

While Hassler’s books are chillier than Powers’s in terms of the weather, Powers’s are colder in another way. There are rarely any happy endings— at least, not this side of the grave. Indeed, if there is a glimmer of hope in one of Powers’s stories, it generally occurs only when somebody is on the brink of the eternal. Father Didymus of “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is finally able to pray on his deathbed, although he continues to wonder if, even now, he really prefers God above all else. Father Urban, banished to a dilapidated retreat house after a near-scandal with a rich donor who also happens to be a sociopath, begins to shed his worldliness to become the saint God intended him to be.

But Powers’s characters are mostly inadequate to their callings, and unlike Hassler’s Father Frank Healy, they never quite achieve the heroic. Father Burner, the frustrated, overweight, perpetual pastor’s assistant in Powers’s story “Prince of Darkness” (the reference is to the photographic laboratory where he prefers to spend his time), longs for a parish of his own. After he gets word that the archbishop will see him after Saturday night confessions and perhaps offer him his own parish at last, Burner rushes through the confession of a young woman who has clearly come to him in desperation after years of separation from the Church. He is in such a hurry to get out of the confessional and into the archbishop’s chambers that he doesn’t have time to let the woman tell him the sins that are obviously gnawing at her, and instead gives her a potted lecture on birth control.

Father Burner, of course, gets his just deserts, too, and when justice occurs in a Powers story, it is inevitably grimly funny. The archbishop, who is Irish, toys with Burner, who is of German ancestry. “I am not Irish myself, your Excellency, but some of my best friends are,” says Burner, hoping to please. “Tut, tut, Father,” says the archbishop. “Such tolerance will be the death of you.” He hands Burner his next assignment in a sealed envelope and asks him not to open it until after Mass the next day. Of course the impatient Burner rips open the envelope as soon as he gets to his car—and he reads the bitter news: “You will report on August 8 to the Reverend Michael Furlong to begin your duties on that day as his assistant. I trust that in your new appointment you will find not peace but a sword.”

Like Father Burner, few Powers characters find peace on this earth, where they are typically forced to endure other people’s petty tyrannies without reprieve. Father Eudex, the young pastor’s assistant in “The Forks,” must put up with a snob of a monsignor who belittles him and even corrects his table manners—hence the story’s title. Another young priest, Father Firman, is locked in mortal combat with Mrs. Stoner, his housekeeper, who behaves exactly like a henpecking wife. Exposed to the pious but imperfectly groomed Catholics who are “night and day in the shadows praying” at the cathedral where he hears confession, Father Burner cynically concludes, “Body odor is the real odor of sanctity.”

When a nun interviewing Powers for a Benedictine magazine asked him why his books were so laced with pessimism, he replied, “You can’t be a winner, but you can go down like a winner.”

A Gentler World

Hassler, by contrast, often lets his characters win in this world when they deserve to, and his humor is consequently gentler. When Father Frank Healy in North of Hope has a “homiletic blackout”—that is, he’s struck dumb in the pulpit—the well-meaning Msgr. Lawrence urges him to preach on charity:

“I daresay I’ve made a reputation for myself, Frank, preaching on charity.”

“You have for a fact, Adrian.”

Putting his first drink of the day to his lips, Frank wondered if it was denseness or holy innocence that kept Monsignor Lawrence unaware of his true reputation. How could a man reach the age of seventy-five without knowing that his nickname was Loving Kindness (the phrase occurred in all his sermons) and that it was uttered with disdain by most of the priests of the diocese.

Because it is clear that Frank loves Monsignor Lawrence, this passage is funny—and makes its point—without being cruel.

Neither Hassler nor Powers writes exclusively about Catholics, and both are deft storytellers whose work need not be relegated to libraries at Catholic universities. Still, I was amazed by a 1999 Harper’s magazine essay by Donna Tartt, author of the lapidary novel The Secret History (1996). Writing about the New York Review of Books Press’s 1999 reissue of Powers’s two novels together with his collected short stories, Tartt tried to argue that because he painted unflattering portraits of Catholic priests, Powers was “not a Catholic novelist.” Her argument seemed to be that a Catholic novelist should restrict himself to pious tales. (To be fair, Powers himself rejected the “Catholic novelist” label, as did Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh.)

But Catholicism in fact informed everything Powers wrote. Secular critics such as Tartt and Wood (Tartt should know better, as she is a Catholic convert) are misled by the mundane surface of things in the lives of Powers’s fictional priests, a surface that only veils the supernatural reality that is his true subject. “We couldn’t have art unless there was some higher authority that says ‘Yes, that’s right.’ …I don’t think God likes crap as art,” Powers once said.

Hassler, by contrast, doesn’t seem to mind the “Catholic novelist” label. “It surprised me how much Church there is in my books…. It’s with me, I guess,” he told Anne Cormier.

Who is the better novelist, Powers or Hassler? I suppose that in the way that Shakespeare’s tragedies are of a higher order than his romantic comedies, Father Urban’s bleak redemption is probably higher art than James and Agatha’s transforming but ultimately cozy love, or Frank Healy’s perhaps too easy rediscovery of his vocation. But it’s hard to say. All I know for certain is that I can hardly wait for Hassler’s next novel, said to be another Staggerford yarn centering around Agatha, to reach the stores. I anticipate yet another felicitous read—in every sense of that word, from the happy to the holy.


  • Charlotte Hays

    Charlotte Hays is Director of Cultural Programs at the Independent Women's Forum. Hays has appeared on cable television programs such as Politically Incorrect, C-Span's Washington Journal, and PBS's To the Contrary. A former correspondent for the National Catholic Register and a feature writer at The Washington Times, Hays has been fascinated by politics since covering local politics for alternative weeklies in New Orleans. She is coauthor of three humorous books on southern culture, the first of which was the best-selling Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. She is also author of Fortune Hunters, a book on what it takes to make a Midas marriage. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, the Washington Post’s “Book World,” and the Weekly Standard.

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