Faith & Thought

A Different Type of Book By Catholic Writer Jon Hassler

by Father Robert Lauder

I have just finished a book by Jon Hassler, who is one of my favorite novelists. I have referred to his novels in the course on the Catholic novel that I give at St. John’s University and also in the series of 50 lectures that I did on the Catholic novel and that are available on YouTube. 

However, the book by Hassler that I just finished reading, titled “Good People … from an Author’s Life” (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2001, 120 pp.) is not a novel. The following statement is on the back cover of the book: 

“It’s easier to portray bad individuals than good. There are so many ways to be bad, whereas the good seem to be converging on a single path to virtue. That’s why I was extremely flattered a few years ago to read, in a review of my work, that my novels are unusual in that they make good people interesting.” 

I agree completely that Hassler in his novels makes good people interesting. In “Good People … from an Author’s Life” Hassler writes about good people he has known in his life, and this is why I think the book is one of a kind: he also writes about the goodness of some of the fictional characters he has created in his novels. 

One of the epigraphs that Hassler has put in his book is from the novelist George Eliot. The following is Eliot’s statement, which I think expresses a profound truth: 

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

I think immediately of many people who never became famous but who had an enormous impact on my life. At the top of my list are members of my family and immediately after them are wonderful friends who have been great blessings in my life. 

I think of the dedicated teachers who spent their lives dedicated to helping people like me. I suspect that my list could be endless. 

Hassler’s references to his parents and friends is interesting. I found especially interesting the anecdotes he offers about his friend, the novelist and short story writer, J.F. Powers. 

The first short story I read by Powers was “The Trouble.” I read the story as an assignment given to my English class in my third year at Xavier High School in Manhattan. The story was assigned by a Jesuit scholastic. I cannot recall discussing the story with classmates so I cannot comment on my classmates’ reaction to the story. 

I know the story was one of the most powerful pieces of literature I had read up to that time. It woke me up to the terrible sin of racial prejudice and to the central role that justice should play in a Catholic’s moral life. 

What interested me most about Hassler’s book is his discussion of the goodness of some of the characters in his novels. I kept thinking that these were characters that Hassler created and yet he wrote about them as though he was learning about them. 

He created them, and the character traits they have are products of his imagination, and yet he writes as though he is learning from them. Reflecting on the character of Agatha McGee, who appears in more than one of Hassler’s novels, Hassler writes the following: 

“Agatha McGee, my most popular character among my readers, is a complicated mix of goodness and officiousness. She likes to retain her own privacy while delving into the lives of her neighbors and friends and making sure they are walking the narrow and decorous path to salvation. She never doubts herself. 

“She’s always right. This overbearing type of neighborliness may be part of what makes her appealing, for in a world of ambiguities we admire definiteness. But then, just when you’re convinced of her high-handedness, she will perform an act of pure kindness, allowing her innate goodness to shine through. … 

“Witnessing Agatha’s struggles with her conscience over moral issues is another part of her appeal, at least for me. I have enjoyed watching her confront certain ambiguous situations” (p. 112). 

Referring to “watching” one of his characters and that he “enjoyed” watching her strikes me as strange since Agatha McGee is one of Hassler’s creations. 

It is almost as though some of his fictional characters take on a life existence separate from their creator. I recall a novelist friend once remarking to me that he was going back to his workroom to see what his characters were doing. 

Where do a novelist’s characters come from? How can a novelist get to know characters better by observing them when their existence and activity are totally due to the novelist’s creativity? I don’t know the answers, but I find the questions fascinating. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.