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God, Sex, Death, Mystery

February 22, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Drama critic Richard Gilman, now in his early 60s, has written a deeply engrossing memoir of a decade in his late 20s and early 30s when he became a Roman Catholic, then a writer--and then ceased being a Catholic. Born a Jew but an atheist at his conversion, Gilman abruptly joined, then gradually left the church; this is the foreground story of "Faith, Sex, Mystery" (Simon & Schuster: $16.95).

The background story tells how Gilman first floundered, then steadily found himself as a writer and a man. Gilman writes that he has never "completely understood the relationship between my love of literature and ambition for it and the religious experience I was about to have." But unanswered questions have everything to do with the unique pathos, eloquence and urgency of this book.

The making-of-the-writer story begins when the owner of a Catholic bookstore suggests to the new convert that he apply for work at Jubilee, a now-defunct Catholic magazine. A Jubilee salesman at first, Gilman quickly becomes writer, then associate editor. "Not the least of the benefits I got from the job," Gilman writes, "was the sharpening, the creation really, of my style." It is a remarkable style, as intimate and easy as conversation but equal, intellectually, to the knottiest topics.

Gilman leaves Jubilee for the better-known, less churchy, more worldly Commonweal. He becomes book reviewer, then literary editor and then, after two years, is unexpectedly asked to become drama critic. He points out to editor James Finn that he has no special background in drama. Finn says (and in a way this is the turning point of the book): "We like your mind and your writing, and I'm sure you'll learn the things you have to."

Finn is right. Gilman plunges into the job. In the heyday of Off Broadway, he goes to the theater five, six, seven times a week, reads "more than 500 plays and dozens of books on the theater" and feels "after that astonishing, demented orgy of self-instruction . . . that I'd at least got myself ready."

Readier than he knew: In his third year at Commonweal, Newsweek invites him to become its drama critic at quadruple his Commonweal salary. He accepts. There follows an invitation to guest-lecture at Columbia, then a spot as critic-in-residence with the now-legendary Open Theater, then a faculty position at Yale. Meanwhile, a troubled first marriage behind him, Gilman weds again, much more happily. Twenty years later, still at Yale, he has become a literary figure of national reputation, combining his university work with stints of varying length as literary editor of New Republic, drama critic for The Nation, Guggenheim fellow, president of P.E.N., etc. He is the author of four books, including the much-noted "Decadence: The Strange History of an Epithet." In a word, he has made it.

But he almost blew it. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. . . . Back in 1953, with his 30th birthday on the horizon, Gilman had never held a job of any kind. He had a small inheritance, enough to sustain him and his unhappy first wife in a cheap apartment and a frugal round of paperback books, second-run movies and free concerts. He knew, somehow, that he could write, but for whom? About what? At what length? And he was confused and humiliated by persistent sexual fantasies "of amazonian women wrapping their powerful thighs around my head . . . imprisonments from which I could only be released if I accepted my fate as these women's sexual slave, although I didn't have the slightest wish to be a slave in any other area."

As the years slipped by, Gilman's knowledge of his own literary gift had become the source of increasing pain. Approaching the end of his Catholic period, he would burst out to a James Finn initially reluctant to take him on: "But I can write better than most of the people you have!" And he would be right. To his sorrow, however, he had known as much years earlier, years before his career started to take off. Back then, with his youth starting to fade, his knowledge of his talent was almost killing him.

Death was on his mind: "I remember taking note around this time of the fact that Keats, to whom I otherwise wouldn't have dreamed of comparing myself, had been a year or two younger at his death than I was now." A cliche, a joke almost, but not for Gilman, not in his 20s.

Gilman resolved his crisis by what would conventionally be described as a leap of faith, but it doesn't seem a leap in the telling. It seems a kind of somnambulism, and something of the same dreamy, is-this-me-saying-this? mood lingers as Gilman looks back a generation later. Lucid, sentence by sentence, as subtle about his childhood as any psychoanalyst (his own was Theodor Reik), marvelously acute in his observation of the Catholics whom he meets after his conversion, the author nonetheless lapses into a kind of trance at key interpretive moments.

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