Eric Recommends: ‘Thanksgiving Night’

“Thanksgiving Night,” by Richard Bausch. Bausch is evidently a writer of some renown, but I hadn’t heard of him until his latest novel, “Thanksgiving Night,” was recommended to me. It’s a wonderfully written, marvelously redemptive piece of fiction about several characters in a small Virginia town whose lives intersect in the weeks before Thanksgiving. A married couple find their relationship in trouble; an elderly priest wonders if he’s right for the priesthood; two old ladies argue over the house they share; the man they’ve hired to do some work on it faces his own demons, and his grown-up daughter, a single mom, tentatively embarks on a new relationship. All of these people are looking for love and acceptance, and it’s quite lovely — not to mention sparklingly entertaining — to read.

I want to quote a passage I like a lot. It’s our first introduction to Brother Fire, the old priest. His name is technically pronounced “fear-ay,” but years ago his fiery demeanor earned the more common pronunciation, and it stuck:

Fact is, he likes the name.

He also likes mornings when the sun breaks through the fog, wind that shakes leaves out of the trees, lightning forking across a summer sky, rivers — all waters, really — plants, animals, birdsong, the roar of lions, music of every type, drums, all the kinds of coffee and tea, cats, dogs, horses, paintings of people bustling by on city streets, paintings of flowers, all the sculptures of Bernini, flying buttresses, those great red sequoias in Northern California, Northern California itself (for the wines), wine, white and red but mostly the reds, especially Italian, the Shenandoah Valley, presidential politics, philosophy, the poetry of John Berryman and Gerard Manley Hopkins (he sees the affinity between them), and, of course, all of Shakespeare. But above everything, he likes people. He loves people. The sweetest music to him has always been the sound of another human voice. What for all others would be the most unattractive, nerve-grating accent pleases him for the fact of its contribution to the happy proliferation of human notes. He enjoys others, not in the abstract way of, say, a Lenin or a Trotsky — though he has always been decidedly leftward-leaning in his politics — but in a very specific and direct way. When you talk to him, you have an immediate sense that he is interested in your benefit, and that you can tell him everything, even when, as it is in the confessional, what you have to report is sordid and full of failure and contradiction. He will tell you — and mean it — that the sign of contradiction is the center of Christianity, that the cross itself is the first sign of contradiction, and that the human condition is in its way similar to that of Christ: that contradiction of being both God and man, and alive on the earth; of possessing an eternal soul yet living in a body that dies. It is all meaning. And meaning, for Brother Fire, is what gives a measure of majesty to ordinary lives. He’s uncomplicatedly convinced of his own ordinariness, and so, when he speaks to his parishioners, this simple faith in that fact and in their charity convinces them, brings them forth in a welter of love, a sweet dependency. His gift, above all else — above the humor and the good nature with others and the charm — is acceptance.

Not only do I find that paragraph splendidly written, but its theology and philosophy feel sound, too, reassuring and comforting.

On the next page, we learn that Brother Fire’s upbringing by decent parents “taught the boy that striving for goodness was inherently goodness itself.” Striving for goodness is inherently goodness itself. Isn’t that profoundly true? If you try to be a good person, you are a good person, because only a good person would bother trying.

The book has a lot of that kind of wisdom blended into its stories about common people and their common struggles. I’m glad I read it — and over Thanksgiving weekend, too, coincidentally.