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Book reviews: Sweet Heaven When I Die; Swallowing the Past


Published December 7, 2011 at 8:00 a.m.


It’s easy to say you empathize with your fellow Americans, even when you’re a liberal intellectual and they’re red-state evangelicals. It’s not so easy to stroll onto their turf and ask them to elaborate their points of view. In powerful new (mostly) nonfiction works, two acclaimed local writers cross jagged cultural divides in search of common ground. They discover that we’re as likely to stand divided against ourselves as against one another.

Jeff Sharlet, author of Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between, teaches at Dartmouth College. The collection of essays and journalistic pieces chronicles his conversations with militant teen fundamentalists, Clear Channel execs, new-age therapists, anarchists, a gun-toting attorney, a radical Christian philosopher and more.

Greg Bottoms is an English prof at the University of Vermont. In the essays and novella assembled in Swallowing the Past: Scenes From the Postmodern South, he recounts meetings with drug addicts, racists, schizophrenics, transvestites, street preachers, suburbanites who confess to hate crimes and phantoms from his own troubled past.

Both authors are several books into their careers: Sharlet is best known for his award-winning reportage on religion in America, Bottoms for his autobiographical writings about masculinity, madness and the South. In these two collections, however, both cross another line — between impersonal and personal writing — to produce brilliant portraits of faith, despair and the fictions that keep people going. Because both are superb writers, their often-elegiac prose rumbles with the fierce rhythms of the blues.

Sharlet made a spirited foray into the culture wars with The Family (2008) and its follow-up, C Street (2010), exposés of an elite cadre of free-market fundamentalists who wield power in Washington and beyond. The essays in Sweet Heaven are also about faith, and a few draw on Sharlet’s earlier research.

But the mood is different. In an afterword, Sharlet calls these pieces “attempted escapes” from his “long immersion” in Christian fundamentalism’s “authoritarian worldview.” Some are profiles of people for whom Sharlet has unabashed admiration: radical Princeton professor Cornel West; Yiddish novelist and Holocaust survivor Chava Rosenfarb. Others are essentially short, poetic personal memoirs. Still others are vivid pieces of reporting on faith-based subcultures.

As a journalist, Sharlet understands faith in a broad and malleable sense: He investigates faith in Jesus, faith in law and order, faith in cleansing rituals, faith in rock and roll. One common denominator, he suggests slyly, is faith in the almighty dollar. “It’s no heresy to say that most religions come with a price tag,” Sharlet writes in “The Rapture,” his profile of a pricey new-age practitioner. “If you obey these rules, rewards will follow. It’s all about the deal.”

Another, scarier accompaniment of some faiths is militarism. For one piece, Sharlet interviews a friend of anarchist martyr Brad Will who calls herself Warcry. For another, he talks with young members of the evangelical movement BattleCry, who are being trained — with the help of music, light shows and other teen-friendly tactics — to wage war on secular America.

Wherever he goes, though, Sharlet seems to home in on a certain kind of interview subject: the believer who acknowledges doubts and contradictions; who recognizes his or her faith as the flip side of looming despair. That subject could be Bryan Dilworth, who proclaims his allegiance to real, rebel rock even as he books acts for Clear Channel. It could be Will, who didn’t try to explain his revolutionary activism to his beloved, conservative parents. It could be a young woman named Valerie, who embraces BattleCry’s puritanism as a refuge from her turbulent sexual history. Or it could be the author, who describes his own “half-life” — a childhood split between a divorced Jewish dad and “hillbilly” mom — in an essay called “You Must Draw a Long Bead to Shoot a Fish.”

Sharlet sometimes gives in to the temptation of overdramatizing his more cinematic subjects — such as the landscape of the American West — and his nigh-on-hagiography of Cornel West is lengthier than it needs to be. Even when reporting, he wears his biases on his sleeve. But they are no simple biases: The less “authoritarian” the faith he explores, the harder it is to peg Sharlet as a true believer, a nonbeliever or an antibeliever. In his final essay, “Born, Again,” he delves into his own tragic sense of faith. “Hope isn’t optimistic,” he writes, “it’s the face of despair.”

Quoting West, Sharlet goes on to describe human dignity as “the ability to contradict what is” — a pursuit worthy of Ahab, and one in which he clearly believes with all his heart.

Like Sharlet, Bottoms is haunted by his own past and by “half-lifes” that cross class and cultural boundaries. The title of Swallowing the Past alludes to the author’s childhood reluctance to down his grandmother’s chitlins. They tasted of her hardscrabble Southern agrarian past, and he, growing up working class in a Virginia suburb, wanted none of it. Today, the smell of chitlins reminds Bottoms of “the ways we, in America, try to drop our histories — especially the parts about class, the parts, you could say, that stink.”

There are whiffs of academic language in the six personal essays that open the book, but little academic dogmatism. While he doesn’t want to “drop his history,” Bottoms acknowledges that parts of his past are still hard for him to swallow. Take his adolescent friendship with a boy whom he meets again, years later, as a petty criminal with a terrified child in tow. (“And what would they let you be a professor of?” his onetime friend asks the grown-up author derisively.) Though he set out in writing the essay to “bend meaning toward compassion for my old friend,” Bottoms admits he isn’t feeling it: “Nothing here engenders sympathy for him. I don’t feel sympathy, for him or for the kid I was when I knew him.”

Compassion may not always be forthcoming, but it imbues “Grace Street Notebook,” a series of linked vignettes that Bottoms describes as notes “for a novel about the South.” He’s vague about their status as fiction or nonfiction — clearly there’s some of each — but the frame is autobiographical: At 22, after his father’s death, the author spent a year living “nearly broke” among the poor of Richmond, Va., listening to their stories. Like Sharlet, Bottoms’ narrator ventures into disparate and hostile territories with a notebook, writing down what he sees and hears.

The stories he gathers range from absurdist jokes to small tragedies to Kafkaesque parables. Their common factors: urban poverty, grim humor and unpredictability. “Writers really are thieves, unforgivable thieves,” writes Bottoms in one vignette, about how he tried to twist his observations of a homeless woman to his own purposes. In another tale, about a fiction writer and his junkie neighbor, literature promises empathy, shared experience, perhaps even salvation.

But just what is salvation in a world of so many faiths and faith wars? Though they’re far from evangelical Christians, Bottoms and Sharlet share a fascination with the notion of being “born again.” Both title an essay after it, and both seem to find the idea equally compelling and impossible, or compelling because it’s impossible. Is the rebirthing ritual a leap of faith? Magical thinking? Or, as a street preacher tells Bottoms, “a kind of insurance policy”? Is it a coincidence that modern American life so often requires us to move from class to class, identity to identity, giving birth to new versions of ourselves?

By bringing back the stories of people they’ve met on their own wanderings across battle lines, Bottoms and Sharlet bear witness to something greater than their personal dilemmas. Call it faith, call it fiction, call it both. But to read these books — both works of passionate, troubled empathy — is to feel less alone.

"Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between" by Jeff Sharlet, W.W. Norton, 264 pages. $24.95.

"Swallowing the Past: Scenes From the Postmodern South" by Greg Bottoms, Texas Review Press, 60 pages. $22.95.