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Literary World Is Making More Room for Religion

With cultural diversity an ever-growing presence, writers (and readers) are embracing themes of spirituality.

August 01, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is as if a flying saint slipped under the radar. That or a biblical prophet disguised as an ordinary guy. In high literary circles, where a fine mesh strains out only the rare talents, religion is a welcome intruder. Many fiction writers praised by critics for their "brilliant" and "luminous" work are building their reputation nowadays on life's deepest mystery.

The literary heritage behind this trend glitters with such names as Flannery O'Connor and Bernard Malamud. But while older generations frequently had no patience for religion's hairsplitting rules and false pieties, these new writers are more inclined to accept them, with respect and at times bemusement. In their hands the trappings of faith can seem as familiar as old furniture or as exotic as artifacts from a lost civilization. Religion itself does not attract them but, rather, the unpredictable effects of belief.

Take Chloe, the street-smart innocent wearing the "Raging Hormones" T-shirt from Charles Baxter's "The Feast of Love" (Pantheon), new this spring. Her love seems purer than anybody's in this novel about romantic relationships, but she did not learn about it in church.

"I think I'm more of a visionary," she tells her boss at the coffee shop where she works. "After all, I once saw Jesus at a party." For Chloe, he's likely to turn up anywhere. People will recognize God even if they've never been introduced.

Then there is Charles, a half-baked Protestant who goes through a giddy conversion in a New York taxi. His story, "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," is one in a 1999 collection by 29-year-old Nathan Englander titled "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" (Knopf).

"Ping! Like that it came. Like a knife against a glass," the narrator tells us. Charles feels obliged to share the news with the cabbie who hears him out, but just barely.

"Oddly, it seems that I'm Jewish. Jewish here in your cab."

"No problem here. Meter ticks the same for all creeds."

It is startling enough to watch our Judeo-Christian heritage being reclaimed by serious fiction, but with cultural diversity infusing the whole country, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Maya traditions are almost as likely a presence.

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Jhumpa Lahiri, 33, of Indian heritage, won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her first collection of short stories, "Interpreter of Maladies" (Houghton Mifflin). She writes about first- and second-generation immigrants who build altars to their household gods and submit to arranged marriages divinely ordained.

Earl Shorris, 64, shows the Maya view of the world in the just released "In the Yucatan" (W.W. Norton), where stargazing and ritual corn offerings are part of life. In the Mesoamerican cultures he writes about, religion is based in nature and explains the meaning of things. "It would be impossible to write about the Maya and avoid the religious component," Shorris says.

Allegra Goodman immerses readers in the hothouse environment of an Orthodox Jewish community from the '70s in "Kaaterskill Falls" (Random House), a national bestseller last year. "The character who searches for something more is important to me, whether they are in a religion or have no religious structure," says Goodman, 33, a Conservative Jew who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "It seems to me elemental that if you write about what people do, religion and spirituality are part of that."

From the publishing point of view, the exploding interest in cultures from around the world is providing a natural carrier for religious themes. "The industry is opened to groups not represented in the past," says Janet Silver, editor in chief for Houghton Mifflin in Boston. "You find writers from cultures that define themselves by religion, in ways that Americans do not. Religion in fiction overlaps a trend toward interest in international writing."

That plus the stratospheric sales figures attached to recent Christian fiction such as the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The seven installments so far have sold about 18 million copies. The critical and financial success of nonfiction books on topics of religion has also helped. Kathleen Norris' spiritual memoir "Cloister Walk" (Riverhead) and "God a Biography" (Knopf) from Jack Miles, a senior advisor at the J. Paul Getty Trust, are among those Silver mentions.

Wide as their range of subjects may be, the younger fiction writers who take up religious themes have a few things in common. Their references to beliefs and institutions may be explicit but they are not promoting a faith. "Orthodox Judaism is not a subject to me," says Englander, who was raised Orthodox in New York and now lives "completely secular" in Israel. "It's a world, a complete three-dimensional world. I grew up in that world and for a long time knew no other.

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