T. S. Eliot once remarked, in a famous essay on French poet Charles Baudelaire, that "so far as we are human, we must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist."
While this observation is susceptible to misinterpretation, Rachel Billington, in her most recent novel, seems to have forgotten its most obvious meaning. Eliot expressed that meaning perfectly when he brought his observation about our moral natures to a close by remarking that "the worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned."
Henry Hayes-Middleton, Billington's protagonist in "The Garish Day," her eighth novel, may not be a malefactor, but neither is he quite fully a man, despite his appetite for sexual adventure. And he remains arrested in a state of spiritual as well as emotional adolescence at the end of the book precisely because he is incapable of being damned.
In a novel less theologically self-conscious than "The Garish Day" or Billington's more successful as well as more explicit "An Occasion to Sin," this deficiency would be forgivable. But here we are invited to construe young Henry's odyssey from infancy to manhood as ultimately religious, and the novel fails precisely because its author permits her hero to reap the rewards of salvation, or at least of new life, without having ever really experienced the wages of his sin. Even if it takes the death of his saintly but still pathetic mother and the return of the daughter he thought he had forever lost to bring him, so to speak, to his knees, Henry receives in the end only what the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as "cheap grace."