Faith Flickers in the Burbs, Spiritual Pulse Is Faint

The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance by Benjamin Anastas. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages, $24.

If books were shelved according to the cadence of their titles rather than by the names of their authors, Benjamin Anastas’ new novel might find itself wedged between Narrative of the Planting of the Massachusetts Colony and Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England. Both of those were written before 1695. Who publishes “faithful narratives” any more? Who still writes about pastors? Mr. Anastas’ title sounds lifted from the syllabus of a graduate seminar on the social history of 17th-century Puritans.

Colonial authors wrote “faithful narratives” and expected to be taken literally. But in 2001, no title containing the word “faithful” can ever be transparent. Mr. Anastas knows this, and the novel he has written (set in present-day New England, but fully conscious of its heritage) is as skeptical as those earlier works were devout. Mr. Anastas’ novel questions anything promising complete fidelity. So if his theme is faith, in most senses of the word–spiritual, social, sexual–his lesson is that faith is as elusive as any narrative that purports to plot its course. In his first novel, An Underachiever’s Diary , he evoked this quite literally: The object of the narrator’s affection–the girlfriend of his own twin brother, the intelligent and beautiful ideal always beyond his grasp–was named Faith.

That earlier novel was a slim, first-person account of a well-meaning but mediocre hero who could not live up to the high standards of his angelic brother. For his second book, Mr. Anastas has broadened his scope: His frame is no longer the complaint of one protagonist, but rather the cross-section of a whole community. Here the main figure is Bethany Caruso, a frustrated and lonely wife living in an unnamed suburb near Boston. She has two children and a devoted husband whom she no longer loves. Bethany has exiled him to a room above the garage where, ensconced with his soft-core pornography collection, he pines for the wife who will not have him.

For years, Bethany has been suffocating from boredom. In the past, her only anodynes were Zoloft and marijuana supplied by the local teenage dealer. But everything changes when the local Pilgrims’ Congregational Church imports a new pastor, Thomas Mosher, who is black (or half-black–his father was white). Immediately, Thomas becomes a subject of fascination for the community: The congregants struggle to interpret his esoteric sermons, the local women swoon and Bethany Caruso falls furiously in love.

But this isn’t at all how it happens in the novel. A faithful narrative would probably tell the story sequentially: Bethany is miserable, Reverend Mosher arrives, they fall in love, he disappears. Instead, the novel opens with one long sentence–spanning four pages and comprising the entire first chapter–which anxiously recreates the parish’s confusion in the wake of the disappearance. The narrative voice of this opening chapter is hardly the official record we might expect from a faithful narrative; it is, rather, the language of gossip. As the first sentence spirals on and on, we begin to realize that if this narrative is going to be faithful to anything, it will be only to the frantic and chattering energy of a town consumed by the mystery of its pastor’s disappearance.

Soon Bethany emerges from this morass of confusion as the novel’s main consciousness. Since the narrative constantly jumps back and forth in time, we meet her at the moment of Thomas’ disappearance–long after the two have begun their affair. It is Mr. Anastas’ skill that we accept and identify with Bethany immediately. She is a restless wife, beleaguered mother, minor wine addict and clandestine lover of the leader of her congregation: all at once, yet authentic in each. But as with Emma Bovary, everything about the heroine seems at the service of her vigorous will, specifically her will to love. In the fictional world of the bored small-town or suburban wife, the only possible flight is through the imagination towards passion. In Emma’s case, the tragedy of this passion is gradual: We are subjected, step by step, to her abandonment by one lover and her disillusionment with another. But in Mr. Anastas’ version, since he begins at the end–after the pastor has disappeared–we first encounter Bethany already bewildered and lonely: “She missed the pastor terribly, and wanted, if nothing else, just to hear his voice …. Suddenly, with this last thought, it dawned on her maybe, just maybe, weaning herself from the Zoloft had nothing at all to do with her volatile mood (although it couldn’t help matters); it had been years, of course, since she had known anything to compare her desperation to, but wasn’t she in love?”

Mr. Anastas makes a point of sketching in the small-minded congregants and busybodies of the community; he has a gift for rendering minor characters as something more than caricatures. But the center of his suburban world is his confused suburban wife. Bethany is the only major figure in this novel; although we meet the pastor in numerous flashbacks, his mysteriousness and ultimate disappearance make him a void in the middle of the novel. (The fact that he’s black is a bit puzzling, too. Mr. Anastas wants to lay bare the true attitudes of a “liberal” white community towards its black pastor, but this is never quite fulfilled: One forgets about his race altogether.)

The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance places an unhappy and faithless suburban wife at the heart of a suburban novel in order to ask certain questions about suburbia. What is the role of the church in a landscape of banality? Can we transcend monotonous drudgery through love–even when that love is transgressive?

Bethany’s condition is not only suburban desolation, but an acute awareness of that condition. Often it seems as if she knows not only Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne (another Massachusetts woman with a clergyman lover), but also Cheever, Updike, White Noise and the rest of the suburban canon. Bethany’s will and intelligence are precisely what give this novel life, but at times her extreme self-consciousness, her realization of herself as an archetype and a figure, cause some suspicion in light of her station.

This is mediated, however, by a real generosity and tenderness on Mr. Anastas’ part. Though there are certainly satirical elements in the book–mainly in the form of foolish minor characters–his comic vision is primarily a charitable one. So although his epigraph comes from Jonathan Edwards, you get the sense that his characters are condemned not so much to hell as to a sort of purgatory of fitness classes, Nintendo and Count Chocula. Mr. Anastas zeroes in on people who have lost faith–an adulterous wife, a pastor whose devotion to God is fading–and nevertheless shows them to be more heroic than their circumstances might normally permit. In fiction, it’s often when a character’s faith begins to wane that our faith in that character as somehow real is born.

Aaron Matz has reviewed fiction and literary criticism for The Observer and The American Scholar . Faith Flickers in the Burbs, Spiritual Pulse Is Faint