Holiness, however defined, always seems to be in short supply—which explains why so many people are so attracted to it, despite George Orwell’s dictum that “a saint should always be judged guilty until proved innocent.” The novelist A. G. Mojtabai (born Ann Grace Alpher in 1937 to a non-observant Jewish family in Brooklyn) shares this longing; but with an austere, relentless clarity she shows how nearly impossible it is to satisfy it.
The narrator-protagonist of her dreamlike, Kafkaesque tale is a vaguely sketched Manhattan social worker named Tom Limbeck, who tells us about his dull, deteriorating personal life and his obsession with a lost-soul client of his named Michael. A homeless, gentle, mystical character, 28-year-old Michael has been dubbed “Saint Francis of the Dumpsters,” both because he was found as a newborn in a dumpster (abandoned by his 14-year-old mother) and because he often scavenges in dumpsters for food supplies that he believes his mother (whom he has never seen) keeps leaving for him.
Actually, a less catchy but more accurate nickname would have been St. Benedict Joseph Labré of the Dumpsters. Labré (1748-83) was a blissfully pious French misfit (rejected by three monastic orders on suspicion of being insane), who wandered to pilgrimage sites around Europe and eventually died a beggar in Rome. He is considered a patron of bachelors, the homeless and the mentally disturbed.
And he closely resembles Michael, whom Limbeck sets out to save—or be saved by. Michael is in what looks like real danger; a defenseless loner, he has been the victim of savage beatings, and he almost died from eating out of a dumpster sprayed with rat poison. Along with Limbeck, the kindly but rock-solid and no-nonsense Father Evans, who runs the nearby St. Joseph’s halfway house, would do almost anything to help Michael, but, like a footloose Bartleby the Scrivener, Michael would prefer not to be helped.
Limbeck’s struggle with Michael is an allegory of faith and unbelief. Raised by a lapsed Catholic turned “devout atheist” father, the rationalistic Limbeck wants to cure Michael of his life-threatening delusion by tracking down his long-lost mother and setting up an interview between the pair. In a system governed by protocols and procedures, such an intervention is more than a little dubious; but Limbeck thinks one good look at the loony, selfish, non-Lady-Bountiful woman will squelch Michael’s fantasy. But will it, and will Michael even show up?
Beyond that, is Limbeck the doctor or the patient? He certainly needs Michael more than Michael needs him: He has just broken up with his longtime girlfriend, June (who constantly skewers him with dead-on diagnoses of his cluelessness and anomie), and is unconnected to anyone else, except a sister in L.A. (who wants him to relocate there, but of course he won’t). The office he works in is a frigid warehouse of detached nonentities. The city is weirdly empty and predictably joyless.
But there is something like a sacred quest in Limbeck’s sessions (often missed) with Michael, as in the classic etymology of “beat” from “beatific.” Though he often appears affectless, he is obviously in touch with something that Limbeck wishes he could be. Cowed as he is by his father’s atheism, he cannot quite buy it. But, he adds, “I cannot say that I believe—anything. Always, always, I hedge my bets. I shift from foot to foot.” At one point he visits a church slated for demolition, where a statue of the Virgin has mysteriously begun to weep. Limbeck admires the passionate, resolute faith of the distressed parishioners; but he remains an outsider looking in. Nevertheless, he cannot let go of Michael’s case, even when the rulebook says he should.
If this were some sort of consoling parable, it would end with an epiphany, a magic (or at least masterful) formula, a koan packed with meaning. Needless to say, it does not—in fact, it doesn’t really end at all. In desperation after another one of Michael’s disappearances, Limbeck goes to see Father Evans, the only wise and compassionate man in sight, and flatly asks him what his secret is. “You want to know what faith is…” the priest replies.
Personally I don’t think it has much to do with weeping statues. It’s not a thunderbolt. It’s not knowing. It isn’t even belief—too often, a head trip. Faith and belief…people tend to think they’re the same thing.... All that talk about a ‘leap of faith’.... No leap for me. It’s nothing at all like flying. Slogging, maybe—more like it.... Faith is the opposite of certainty, I think. Stumbling through darkness as though it were light. Only—once in a great while, well, maybe a glimmer of.... Better not quote me on this, it’s not exactly the Party line.
And that’s as far as Evans can go. One thinks of Kafka’s sublime shaggy dog story, “Before the Law,” where the doorkeeper tells the expiring man who has spent (wasted?) his entire life waiting for admittance to the Law, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it” (tr. W. & E. Muir). Mojtabai is less bleak than that: at least the absurdist seeker—and, for all we know, his elusive saint—is still alive as the curtain falls.
In “Religion and the Writer: A Missed Connection” (1995), Mojtabai argued that writers, because they live surrounded by members of their own skeptical species, are too removed from the religious reality of other people’s lives. A decade and a half later, she levels the same accusation; but it is unclear whether she herself has bridged this distance.
Still, one thing is not in dispute here—she knows the territory: the mindset and verbal tics of American urbanites, from jaded bureaucrats to overworked priests to depressed Dostoevskian superfluous men. Her prose is spare, incisive and, in contrast to its subjects, keen-eyed without being self-absorbed. What she gives us is not so much a world as parts of a world, which might someday come together in a coherent whole—or not.