It is almost February, and I have neither welcomed the new year in nor added a single blog entry since Fall of 2012. Welcome, 2013! May you be a year of blessing for me, my family and friends, and even (especially?) my enemies. The concept of loving my enemies is one I want to explore this year. I didn't used to have enemies, but this ended when I started doing pro-life activism. Activism always annoys people. Whether it's that you disagree with the cause or you're simply tired of the activist acting like a one-note song playing on a broken record, activism riles people up.
I am an artist too -- my medium is words. I'm a writer, but my writing has taken second place to my pro-life activism. I can feel the lack of balance in my waking life, and it jumps out at me even more greatly in my dream life, which functions, as it always has, as a rich alternative experience of life. I have been dreaming of writing for a few months now -- always a sign that I need to get back to it, to dig into the depths of my being and express myself authentically through my art.
Doctor Zhivago is a good depiction of the limits of activism and the limits of art. Lara was loved by both an artist and an activist. Both broke their hearts on the impossibility that their life's passion could fully satisfy the bottomless well of human desire. Desire for love. Desire for justice. Desire for beauty.
To kick off my return to writing, here's a book review of Our Lady of the Lowriders. I am a child of the sixties, a baby boomer, who loved then rejected then loved again the Catholic Church and its proposed solution to inchoate human desire.
I loved this book, although it makes no conclusions about the nature of that proposed solution. It is yet another enjoyable iteration of the process of grace that Chesterton puts into the mouth of his fictional detective-priest, Father Brown: ""I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread."
Our Lady of the Lowriders: A Novel by Doug Lambeth
Reviewed by Rae Stabosz
"SISTER MARY ANNUNCIATA WANTS TO KILL ME.
I CAN TELL. EVERYTHING ABOUT HER SAYS, "KILL ROGER": THOSE BLACK, MEAN EYES, THE ANGRY RED CHEEKS, THE SMILE THAT ISN'T REALLY A SMILE. A GOLD CRUCIFIX NECKLACE SLIDES ACROSS HER CARDBOARD CHEST COVER AS SHE MOVES. JESUS ON A SWING."
When I read these opening lines of Doug Lambeth's novel, Our Lady of the Lowriders, I flinched. Was this going to be the bitter screed of a disaffected Catholic chronicling the horrors of Catholic grammar school nuns of the 1950's? It's not that I didn't believe the stories. I have my own memories of Our Lady of Fatima grade school, my own Sister Mary Annunciata . Those nuns existed, no doubt about it. But I grow weary of hearing tales of ruler-wielding nuns from fellow baby boomers who left the Church in the full flush of the cultural revolution of the 1960's and never looked back (except to mock.)
Not to worry. This is a novel for the rest of us - those who lived through those chaotic times, wrestled with the doubts, lived the headlines of the "tune in, turn on and drop out" generation, and still kept our Catholic heritage close. It works equally well for today's Catholics, who wonder how in the world did we get where we are in today's Church? Our Lady of the Lowriders is a terrific tragicomedy about the confusions and contradictions of American Catholicism during the sixties and seventies.
The book's first-person narrator is Roger Donnelly, whom we meet as a first grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows Grammar School. Roger gets into a fight with a larger, meaner-looking boy, Jesse Montoya. Afterwards, in the way these rivalries often play out, the two boys become fast friends. Roger goes through his days with minimal exertion and low expectations. He is content to stay out of the way of the grown-ups and pursue normal kid activities like biking and exploring. Jesse is the natural leader of the two, a handsome, good-natured dreamer. Although he has a fierce loyalty to Roger, along with boundless energy and unflagging good cheer, he has one major drawback as a best friend - he regularly sees and talks to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When this happens, Roger knows that his efforts to keep a low profile will suffer. Jesse will receive his marching orders from the two supernatural personages, and he will expect Roger to back him up in whatever they require. It might be preaching from the top of the basketball backboard, or interrupting their altar boy duties to issue dire warnings to Monsignor O'Callahan. Whatever it is, Jesse needs the unbelieving Roger at his side.
"Jesus and Mary say you have to be with me," he insists to Roger. "They say you are a part of it."
Always certain that this time he won't give in to Jesse's nonsense, Roger nonetheless always finds himself at Jesse's side, taking his part, when his friend goes into his "miracle zone".
Family plays a large role in the novel. Roger's family consists of himself; his annoying older sister, Mary Frances; his dad, who drives a truck for Frito-Lay and who gets his greatest pleasure from starting home-improvement projects that he never completes; and his mother -- a pleasant, passive, vaguely clueless lady who just wishes everybody could get along. And then there is Father Quinn, the handsome new parish priest the Donnellys welcome into their home -- a man full to the brim with good intentions and a yen to counsel everyone who crosses his path.
Jesse comes from a large, close-knit, and ever-fluid Chicano household, with cousins and aunts moving in and out as fortunes change, to stay with his warm-hearted, always-cooking mother, his hard-working father, and his numerous siblings. A standout among the extended relatives is Aunt Yolanda, a big-haired, heavily made-up, tough Mexican "chica" who both scares and fascinates Roger.
The title and cover art of the novel puzzled me. Why a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in vibrant colors, hovering over a sleek blue 1966 Chevy Impala, the curious title "Our Lady of the Lowriders" scrawled in a graffiti-like font across it all?
A lowrider, I discovered, is a style of car originated by Mexican Americans that has had its suspension system modified with hydraulics so that it rides as low as possible to the ground. "Lowriders" are also the men who drive or own such cars. The graffiti-like title font mimics the handwriting used by lowriders to scrawl their personal mottos on the rear windows of their lovingly cared-for rides.
Lowriders will weave in and out of Roger and Jesse's lives, sometimes terrorizing the two boys and sometimes providing unexpected support.
And the Virgin? Ahh, but she has her role to play in Roger and Jesse's lives also. Whether her unseen presence is real or the pious delusion of cheerful, strong-willed Jesse Montoya is anybody's guess.
Jesse bewilders and exasperates the skeptical Roger. After a tragedy that Jesse seems to have predicted, Roger becomes increasingly bitter about his friend's easy familiarity with the Virgin and her Son. As Jesse's efforts to follow his visions intensify, forces swirl around him, crimes are committed, loyalties re-align, and Roger becomes the reluctant participant in one final lowrider journey deep into the desert. There, Jesse's faith will confront Sr. Mary Annunciata's last stand for her own brand of righteousness.
The novel covers the years 1961 through 1972, with a significant epilogue that takes place in 1994. During the course of its 555 pages, its rich cast of characters will rush headlong into and then stumble, blunder, and break their hearts and bodies on the social, cultural and religious revolutions that took place during that time period we now call "the sixties". Our narrator, Roger, guides us through a dizzying number of sixties events and subcultures, including suburban cocktail party culture, lowrider gang culture, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, the hippie and black power movements, and the mass exodus of Catholic priests and religious from the Church after the Second Vatican Council.
The writing is crisp and assured. The book is both terribly funny and terribly sad. In its characters and locale, Our Lady is a lovingly rendered depiction of a precise time and place - the sixties as they descended upon one dusty, smog-covered, blue collar Los Angeles suburb where orange groves are being torn up to make room for ever expanding development, and Anglos and Chicanos live in an uneasy peace.
I finished the book for a second time at 2:00 in the morning a week or so ago. I had forced my eyes to stay awake long past the point of comfort. And my reward? Bliss! That suffusion of pure fiction pleasure - warm and tingly, wistful and unspeakably delicious -- recognizable to any reader who has come to the end of a good book. Try Our Lady of the Lowriders on for size. I wish you a similar reward.