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Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamott Riverhead Books: 272 pp., $24.95

March 18, 2007|Charlotte Innes | Charlotte Innes is a poet whose work was recently anthologized in "The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006." She writes about books for several publications and teaches English and journalism at Brentwood School.

THERE'S no one quite like Anne Lamott. She's an irreverent, civil liberties-minded late convert to Christianity who found Jesus after years of drinking and drug-taking in the bohemian outback of Marin County. A vocal opponent of Republican politics, she's also a single mother whose son, Sam, now a teenager, has been a presence in her writing since his birth (more recently with his permission, she notes). Clearly, Lamott is not your typical Christian writer. As she often points out, you won't find her work in Christian bookstores since she swears too much and talks about Jesus as if he's her oldest friend. (She once said, "Jesus drinks himself to sleep when I trash Republicans.")

Nevertheless, Lamott appeals to many Christians and atheists alike. With her edgy humor and a storytelling style rooted in the nitty-gritty of daily life (a child's fear of dogs, her car breaking down) and an ability to lasso larger topics along the way (the war in Iraq, AIDS, alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease), she rarely sounds portentous or dogmatic. Certainly her religion is woven into every piece, but she doesn't beat the reader over the head with it. She chats about Bible stories in the same way she rhapsodizes about apple fritters.

The central concerns of "Grace (Eventually)" aren't much different from those in her two earlier books of essays, "Traveling Mercies" and "Plan B," except that Lamott and her son are a little older, and so her perspective on aging, teenage behavior and other issues has shifted slightly. As in those previous collections, most of the pieces focus on Lamott's ordinary daily life, such as the rewards and difficulties of working with kids in Sunday school or volunteering to help run a special education dance class, or those wispy moments that barely register, like the aftermath of a belated jump off a ski lift, a briefly lost dog, a taxi driver who doesn't know the way. They are stories about the lived experience of faith, little steppingstones to what Lamott calls "grace" -- what secular types like me might call a hard-won sense of being at peace with oneself and the rest of the world.

I had the same initial reaction to this book that I always have to Lamott's work. I began with a suspicion that her pieces were going to be too obvious, too sentimental, and then found myself suddenly disarmed by an unexpected turn of phrase, a flash of humor or a psychological insight. "A Field Theory of Beauty" lifts off with an extended comic riff on her increasingly wrinkled neck, the "neckage" of female middle age. Ultimately, she says, "joy is the best makeup. Joy, and good lighting." Of course, she's right. And she accurately pinpoints a common, middle-aged female discomfort/delusion that if it weren't for the neck, one might look 18. But it's throwaway phrases like "good lighting" that deflate looming cliches and underscore the freshness of her writing.

Lamott has always had her critics. She's berated for self-indulgence or narcissism, or exploiting her family for good copy, or shallowness (she makes everything funny). And of course, there's the religious fundamentalist complaint about her lack of reverence for the Lord. Worse, one critic said that her faith was "simplistic," a charge that made her wonder for "half a day" if she should come up with a "more East Coast kind of happening, intellectual faith," as she put it in a PBS interview last year. "And then, I don't know, I took a nap or something, and that passed."

Certainly, some of the charges against Lamott seem unfair. Narcissistic? Like ... Hegel? Emily Dickinson? Yes, there are many "I's" on the page. But one has to look a little more closely. Her stories may often sound like frivolous internal monologues, but Lamott is after bigger fish -- even though "Grace (Eventually)" doesn't stack up next to her earlier works. Some of the pieces seem unnecessarily drawn out, the taxi ride for one, in which the intended suspense just drags on to no purpose. Too many stories have lyrical endings that simply seem tacked on. And I miss the allusions and manic hilarity of some her earlier pieces.

Of course, it's hard to be funny about some topics -- like a friend's assisted suicide, for example. Although she scrapes together a successful essay (in a literary sense, I mean) by using detailed description -- most notably about crushing pills and mashing them into apple sauce in a "tiny Asian bowl" -- it's an odd mix of sentimentality and Victorian gothic.

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