The Spirit Invisible: City of Belief
2009; Fox Print Books,
45 Pleasant Ave.
Peaks Island, ME 04108
By Richard Oyama
Nicole d'Entremont's semi-autobiographical first novel, City of Belief (Fox Print Books 2009), describes a vanished world--that of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. Driven by a "terrible love," Adele Dion, or Del, in flight from the Philadelphia suburbs, goes to work for the Catholic Worker in New York City. The novel traces the arc of Del’s life and her tense relationships, as well as the story of Jonathan LeBlanc, a self-conflicted volunteer whose unease in his own skin and his anguish about his sick friend Mercedes in Bellevue Hospital is palpable. The third central figure is the real Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, who in the author's incarnation, is profoundly humanized, a self-doubting, somewhat elegiac character who regrets her separation from her husband Graham and questions the commitment of the irreligious youth.
Del's encounters with the Bowery denizens and their grinding poverty evoke stories that her parents told her of the Great Depression of the Thirties. What's different, of course, is the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia and the characters' deepening involvement in the anti-war movement and draft resistance.
Still, this novel shares features of the proletarian or social protest literature of the 1930s by writers such as John dos Passos, John Steinbeck and James Farrell along with
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the interiority of the work of Virginia Woolf. While Thirties fiction has been derided as a sort of kitchen-sink naturalism, it's refreshing to see an author render a segment of American life—the Other America—all too often ignored by canonical novelists. Also courageous is D'Entremont's effort to treat faith and religious doubt as a serious theme:
"And, then, [Jonathan and Del] had agreed not on the word God, but on the feeling, the knowledge of something unseen that was present and uncontested and worthy of belief."
City of Belief is most vivid and alive in its sketches of the Bowery's picaresque characters like Sadie: "Sadie . . .knew Del as one of the young "bleedin `arts" around the Worker and would scoff in disbelief at the stories Del would listen to and apparently believe. But Sadie gave Del earfuls, too, that Del tucked away. There was Sadie's marriage to her wild-catter husband who worked the oil rigs in Oklahoma and South America, his early death leaving her impoverished, no social security, losing her home, coming back to the old neighborhood in the Lower East Side, but, "It's changed, changed. It used to be nice. Drunks and hoors, now," and she'd look off disgustedly, shielding her eyes from the glare of the overhead bulb."
The prose is clean and clear, and often studded with particulars, as in this description of Louie the Hat's sign painting shop: "Del shrugged and scanned Louie's particular disaster. Every flat surface except his upright drafting table was strewn with sheets of brown wrapping paper, tubes of half-squeezed oils, varnish, linseed oil, stained rags, shellac, brushes soaking in bottles, crumpled butcher's paper smudged with mustard and flecks of pastrami, copies of the Daily News, cream soda."
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Less successful is the author's effort to bring to life the anti-war movement's schismatic politics, interminable debates and FBI infiltration of the movement. It's a temptation for an author merely to provide a gloss for historical events rather than dramatize them in scenes. d'Entremont doesn't always escape the temptation here, though the point that the media version of events is a reductive one is taken. Also, the novel is highly episodic,
comprised of short chapters, and employs multiple narrators as a way of complicating the reader's perspective of the characters. However, it would have been preferable if the narrative had been sustained--rather than to "cut away" from the action--particularly in the later sections as Jonathan encounters his terrible fate.