Some Rise by Sin, by Philip Caputo

This 2017 novel, set in the small Mexican town of San Patricio, uses three stories to capture the town’s economic vulnerability amid the violence of a drug war. First is the story of Father Tim Riordan, an American priest who has chosen a kind of exile in the town and is a revered figure there. It continues with the story of Lisette Moreno, an American doctor who has fallen in love with the town and its people; but she is also a lesbian, which she must hide from the locals. And, finally, there is the story of the Brotherhood, a violent movement of narcos who have browbeaten the town and seek to control the entire area. Both the army and the national police strive to destroy this gang, but must deal with similar efforts by a local militia led by a parishioner, Cesar Diaz.

Each story is beautifully told, especially that of the priest. The novel introduces him at length, and one expects this work to be a portrait of a lonely, introspective priest far from home who has earned the trust of his parishioners. That is, Caputo gets truly inside him, probing his thoughts on his vocation, his dedication to his work, and his theological doubts. The novel’s overarching story begins when, in a military mishap, two civilian anti-war demonstrators are killed, and Riordan is requested by Diaz, chief of the town’s local militia, to ask the military leaders for an apology

But finding the perpetrators gradually recedes, as the other stories prevail. And while the three stories work in parallel, they remain on separate tracks. The priest’s doubts revolve around the seal of confession, and his efforts to protect his parishioners. Meanwhile, Lisette, the doctor who has brought modern medicine to a primitive village, is entrapped into treating Julien, the wounded leader of the narco gang. And finally, the Mexican army, under Captain Valencia, and national police, under Gregorio Bonham, also known as the Professor, join their forces to destroy this ambitious and violent narco movement.

The problem, as indicated, is that the three stories never come together. Father Tim is involved in each one, but his involvement in one aspect never ties in with his connection to another. His main issue as a priest concerns the seal of the confession. Should he break it, does he break it, when doing so warns of and perhaps even prevents the violence that has penetrated this village. It is a heartfelt search of his conscience that brings the priest alive early in this novel. For some, this novel might recall Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, with its tale of the whiskey priest in a small Mexican village, but the priest here, a responsible man, is far different.

Nor does Lisette connect the three stories. Her own concern is her lesbian affair with a friend, the painter, Pamela Childress, also an American. Their issue is whether their relationship can survive in a distant Mexican village. Lisette is linked to the story of the Mexican drug wars, as I said, when she is forced to operate on the wounded leader of the narcos. But that dramatic scene does not relate to further developments in this novel.

Finally, there is the story of those narcos, The Brotherhood, as they call themselves. Defeating them prompts both cooperation and competition between the army and the national police, who are jealous of each other’s efforts, plus disdainful of the local militia. Their rivalry is personified by the army’s brutal Captain Valencia and the more refined leader of the national police, the Professor. The latter has been a corrupt official in the region’s drug wars, but, unlike Valencia, relates to the educated priest.

The problem is the ending, when the experiences of the five main characters—the priest, the doctor, the captain, the Professor, and the narco leader Julian—never come together. Instead, each story is resolved separately. That of the priest, as he confronts Captain Valencia, is especially disappointing, for its abruptness. And also because the conscientious father abdicates from his responsibility as a priest, after so much of the novel probes deeply his commitment to his vocation and to his conscience.

At least, it becomes an ending, as does his entire life, that only a writer with a Catholic background could impart meaning to. Which is illustrated by these thoughts that arise in the closing paragraph: “It was he who bore the sins—his own sins and Cesar Diaz’s and every sin he’d heard confessed in his lifetime as a priest. He would atone for them all.”

The title, Some Rise by Sin, comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. A valid theme for this exploration of evil, it means that some can justify their lives, can rise, by committing sinful deeds. Or, in more direct language, that the end justifies the means, long a source of debate in Catholic circles. It applies here most forcibly to the actions of the priest. Can the breaking of the seal of confession be justified if it can prevent violence and save lives? That issue is fully examined here from a Catholic perspective, and is again evoked on the final page.

But Lisette might also be said to be furthering evil when she operates to save the arm and the life of the wounded leader of the Brotherhood. Which, in turn, despite all its violence, preaches that it is fighting the corruption of the Mexican state in behalf of its citizens. Even Valencia and the Professor, by the contrast in their actions, emphasize that there are good and bad methods to achieving a desirable end.

And speaking of ends and means, Caputo does not miss the irony that as two Americans, a priest and a doctor, try to alleviate the suffering endemic to this small Mexican village, other Americans are indirectly, if ignorantly, fomenting the town’s narco wars by importing illegal drugs from Mexico in the first place. It is another reason for Father Tim’s commitment to his Mexican parishioners. He is making amends, both personal and political.

Caputo enriches this novel by means of a Catholic framework. Without Riordan’s doubts and self-recriminations, this work would lose much of its texture as well as a philosophical depth. I would hope that more of Caputo novels are enhanced by exploring such a religious texture. It may not please some critics, such as the New York Times reviewer who says that “Breaches of Catholic doctrine are hazardous plot hinges,” and cites as evidence The Heart of the Matter. But that novel refers inward, to a personal sin, while Father Tim’s reaches outward, to his parishioners. (May, 2019)

Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)