BASS 2017: Kevin Canty, “God’s Work” from The New Yorker, 4/4/16

Sander loves his mother. He walks a few steps after her, wearing a new black suit that has room for him to grow into, carrying a big black valise of pamphlets. When his mother goes to the front door, rings the bell, waits for an answer, Sander stands behind her, looking over her shoulder, with an expression on his face that he means to be pleasant.
It’s the second day of his summer vacation, but it still feels like spring. Lilacs bloom in every yard; irises wag their pink and purple tongues at him.
His mother is plain. She wears a gray sweater, despite the sun, and a black skirt that reaches nearly to her ankles. No lipstick, short, practical hair. Her name is Anna. She makes up for her plainness with a big galvanic smile. People are on her side right away, though they rarely open the screen door and almost never take a pamphlet. Nobody new ever comes to Fellowship. Anna doesn’t take this as permission to stop trying. She thinks the men and women and children in these sleeping houses will lose the chance to live life as God intended unless they take the message she brings them in the pamphlet. Sander thinks she is lovely and brave and admirable. Every day, she tries to save strangers. Selfless. Sander loves his mother.
Today! is the name of the pamphlet.

Complete story available online at The New Yorker

Those first paragraphs do a fair amount of work. We see the two major characters clearly in terms of their physicality, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the scene. We may even suppress a little groan, depending on our backgrounds. But this woman is not the crazy mother from Carrie; she’s merely got a mission not many of us understand. And her son seems to believe fully in the purpose of his role.

But there’s more going on as well in the short paragraphs (maybe it’s in the short paragraphs that everything is always hidden). Sander notices it’s Spring, all abloom with pink tongues. And then there’s that line in the fourth paragraph: “Today! is the name of the pamphlet.” It’s amost poetic how those two short paragraphs are placed, spring coming between mother and son, followed by a dramatic, capitalized, italicized, and exclamation-pointed notice of “Today! at the end, a notification that this will not be just another day. As an aside, I remember another story (“Happy Endings”) where Canty did something very much like this, a character’s noticing the blooming spring paralleling his own sexual blooming.

The story follows an almost, but not quite, predictable path. Yes, there’s a girl. And yes, she’s from Sanders’ school, and he’s caught between God and Mammon just like most of us are, but to him it’s a much bigger deal. Because he’s really, truly serious about God; and he’s acutely aware that he looks dorky, especially with the bad haircut he just got. There’s also the girl’s dad, who seems to enjoy making a bit of sport out of baiting proselytizers, much to the girl’s dismay.

It is exactly the person he was afraid it was, Clara Martinson, she of the ripped T-shirt, raccoon eyes, pierced anything, the next grade up from his, this girl who looks and dresses the way every teen girl would if there was nobody to tell her she couldn’t. Which there isn’t. Please, dear God, make me disappear, Sander thinks. Send me to the solar surface and vaporize me.
“What do you want?” she says. Then she notices Sander in his black suit and haircut. O.K.: there is something in each of us, in every sinner (and Sander knows that we are all sinners), that wants to climb toward the light, and for a moment, in Clara’s eyes, Sander sees the longing for grace.
Then, just as quickly, the window shuts. She says, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dad.”

Here’s where we expect she’s going to play Eve and tempt Sander right out of the Garden. But that isn’t exactly what happens. She seems sincere, if dubious, about the longing for grace, showing up for Fellowship several times, dressing more respectfully for walks with Sander, even rejecting his timid advance. And then her father whisks her away to parts unknown, possibly to keep her from getting involved with what he considers charlatans. Or maybe he whisks her away for another reason. In any case, she’s gone, and Sander is left with his longings.

I see pretty clearly now, after three stories, what Heidi Pitlor meant in her Foreword when she said these stories “reflect a country profoundly divided.” In the first story, we had two realities based on memory, as well as two brothers separated; in the second, we had Old and New battling it out. Here, we have Believers and Heathens. But it’s not the medium, it’s the centrality that medium plays in their lives, and the calcification of a position that excludes all others from validity. Here, it’s religion, but we can become rigidly embedded in all sorts of single issues that overshadow everything else life has to offer and become pigeonholes for judging people: political beliefs, social or class customs, even artistic tastes.

Canty reveals in his TNY interview that he based the story on a real life situation, a kid tagging along with his mother passing out religious literature. He wanted to explore the conflicts the kid might feel between sin and salvation.I didn’t find Sander’s struggle with overcoming temptation as interesting as I found the overall oppositional structure of the two families. Clara’s dad seems to delight in being anti-religious as much as Anna delights in the Lord. And in between are the two teenagers, each used to their worlds, and curious about the other side. What might’ve happened if dad hadn’t intervened? Would the two have found a middle ground in spite of their parents, each of them understanding the world beyond their own boundaries a little better? Or would it have gone all Romeo and Juliet?

But the story before us is the story we have. It’s interesting, considering that Canty had no clear path in mind when he set the characters in motion, that he chose one that seemed, to me, the least interesting possibility, a sudden and completely unexplained departure, taking the decision out of Sander’s hands entirely and leaving him with only memory. Will it fester, destroy his faith from within? Or will it heal in time? And by the way, how does someone pull up stakes and move so fast? Maybe that’s a part of the world outside my experience that I need to explore further.

2 responses to “BASS 2017: Kevin Canty, “God’s Work” from The New Yorker, 4/4/16

  1. This is a second straight story from the New Yorker by a well-established commodity, and the second straight story that didn’t really work for me. As you said, the most interesting parts aren’t within the kid himself, but in the opposition of the two families. The girl’s reaction of wanting to be part of the faith community Sander is kind of sick of is the most compelling dynamic. But Sander’s own internal thoughts on faith, which we get a lot of, aren’t in any way interesting, original, or surprising. Canty wrote a story that I actually see a lot of as an editor. The “young kid caught up in his parents’ religion” story has been done and done and done. I just got one last week at the journal I work on, as a matter of fact, and it was also a child of a JW family.

    Canty’s “Happy Ending” took an idea I bet a lot of writers have had–playing with the colloquial term “happy ending” and blending hand jobs at a massage parlor with an actual, literary, happy ending. That story was strong, because the happy ending wasn’t really a happy ending, just like a hand job isn’t really a happy ending. This story didn’t really deliver for me. I know what a teenage mind hooked on religion is like. The thoughts Sander has are rather superficial, and his conflict: “I love God, but I also love boobs,” doesn’t have much in the way of stakes. This story just has a rather amateurish feel to it. I’ve already read it before, and from writers who will never sniff the New Yorker.

    The term for what I feel is lacking is “felt.” This story doesn’t seem “felt” to me. It’s more like a professional writer saw a kid getting dragged along with his JW parents and thought “I’m going to write a story about that.” There is a lack of fire in the belly here. I don’t think this story troubled its author much.

    • Yes, it’s a very “think piece” approach, the sort of result I’d get if I wrote a story about living in Paris.
      Something else that interested me in the story, however, was the girl’s reation to the religion itself – “There’s really no hell?” It’s very much like how I categorized religions when I was a kid: this one doesn’t allow dancing or drinking, this one is ok with dancing but not drinking, this one’s ok with both but you have to be officially pardoned, etc. More like picking preferences out of a catalog than searching for truth.
      A story I’d really like to see is something involving Sander’s “true belief” versus the kind of belief where you convert to marry someone of another faith so they can stay in their church. I don’t understand that at all. There’s a police-procedural writer, Faye Kellerman, whose first few books dealt with an Orthodox Jewish woman and a non-religious cop, and that went into some very interesting territory (though it kind of cheated to resolve the situation, but these aren’t trying to be “literary” books).
      There’s so much rich territory in religion. But not in this story, sadly. Then I remember what Meg Wolitzer said about our readings setting up expectations for what reading should be, and I feel even sadder.

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