David Plante’s The Accident is an intense character study of its unnamed protagonist, whom the novel follows in and out of a grave spiritual crisis and whose American friends and acquaintances all represent different answers to the twin challenges of how he should lead his life and what he should believe in. Because of this focus on the central character, which his creator further strengthens by making him a highly subjective and at times very unreliable narrator, the novel’s success depends entirely on the reader’s accepting the idea that the protagonist’s crisis represents an authentic and important inner conflict.
After the problematic, almost overwritten first few pages, The Accident moves on to an intimate portrayal of its protagonist’s relationships with several young Americans who, in addition to serving as foils, are marked by their own personal struggles at a European Catholic university in 1959.
The task of re-creating this time and recapturing its mood, together with its particular tearing conflicts, without appearing merely to dig up past issues is a formidable challenge. Aided by his own experience—Plante himself spent the academic year 1959-1960 in Louvain—the author moves carefully through a territory in which the philosophical questions raised by the (French) existentialists were fresh and pressing and where taking the Lord’s name in vain was a serious profanity. At the same time, however, the problems besetting young Americans trying to find acceptance at college and among their circles of friends retain a topical relevance, and it is between these two poles of timeboundness and timelessness that the narrative of The Accident tries to strike a precarious balance.
Like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), perhaps the most widely recognized original voice of young America on the verge of the widespread upheavals of the 1960’s, Plante’s protagonist begins his journey into the threatening abyss of self with a train ride, during which he reveals an uncanny knack for the merciless analysis of others’ frailties as well as his own. Traveling to Belgium at the end of his summer vacation in Spain, where he had gone in desperate pursuit of a total spiritual experience, the narrator meets the first of his American fellow students, Pauline Flanagan. He takes a strong dislike to Pauline because, as he reveals later in one of the frequent moments of self-criticism that counter-balance his superior attitude, he subconsciously envies her ability to shift easily between the roles of “regular guy” and postgraduate Christian student-teacher of theology.
Throughout The Accident, Plante uses such subordinate characters as Pauline economically, for they also provide his protagonist with an important piece in the developing puzzle of his crisis. In Pauline’s case, this happens as she leads him to a small park opposite the tower in which the Renaissance scholar Cornelis Jansen “lived and thought up” the religion of the narrator’s French-American ancestors, which by now has been assimilated into orthodox Catholicism—a faith he cannot accept. Like Pauline, the park will recur in the narrative at critical moments in the narrator’s inner development.
It is through the narrator’s friendship with Tom Donlon, however, that his inner troubles are most comprehensively revealed. With his typical arrogance, which carries just a whiff of despair, the narrator argues that he befriends Tom only because he was the only American “who had the patience to listen to me talk about Spain” once school had started. Yet Tom proves to be much more. A joyful believer in Catholicism, in the all- permeating nature of God’s grace, and in a deity who has allowed humanity to make its own decisions where the acceptance or rejection of faith is concerned, Tom not only represents the spiritual alternative of Christianity but also embodies the very principle of choice: Unlike the narrator, who wants “experience” to force him into belief, Tom decides to force himself to accept faith and to act compassionately—an attitude toward the challenges...
(The entire section is 1709 words.)