Michael Mewshaw Essay - Critical Essays

Mewshaw, Michael

Mewshaw, Michael 1943–

Mewshaw is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and critic. His prose is characterized by witty dialogue and sensitive character portrayals. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

By the time you finish ["The Toll"] (and there's no way you won't finish it!), you'll feel splayed, flayed, disembowelled, deep-frozen, parched, lousy, expatriated, exodontiated, racked and probably tattooed. "The Toll" is one of the most thoroughgoing strippings-away of man's pretensions to humanity since "Last Exit to Brooklyn"—but this time on the level of pure action and impure motives, noble rhetoric curdled into yellow bile, idealism boiled down to gut-survival, flower children rotting on a compost heap…. (p. 36)

The "girl" is named Bert, and I wish Mewshaw had omitted her so that we wouldn't be subjected to those Robert Jordan-Maria couplings in the back seat of Ted's Renault, not to mention all the mooning about sex and reality, about "when they touched, it was as though more than their bodies met." And I'll bet you haven't heard the following dialogue-exchange since the last time you saw Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth: "Can we trust him?" "We have to."

But these lapses are harmless breathers, and most of this juggernaut-fiction speeds like nemesis on wheels. You can smell and taste the Moroccan setting, and you almost wish you couldn't. The brutal four-day action of maneuvering, escape, chase, evasion, confrontation and subanimal murder grows like nightshade from the talk about boredom being the cancer of the age, about nothing being worse than the laws of absolute nullity, and from the gradual recognition that these middle-class freedom-fighters stink with deception and self-indulgence and doom themselves by refusing to acknowledge the existence of limits…. The high body count in "The Toll" is not the reason for its grim fascination. Mewshaw's talent is. (pp. 36-7)

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 24, 1974.

Michael Mewshaw's The Toll, which can be read by those new to this writer as a straightforward and jarring thriller, in many ways grows out of his last novel, the widely praised Waking Slow. Here, violence is … direct…. [The] book is built about a botched caper, and ruthlessly plays out its own implications. What animates The Toll and puts its gory collisions and mishaps into the class of serious fiction is its political despair. The novel absorbs the usual theoretical underpinnings of the thriller, that value is invented and local and the world a primal disorder, and makes these notions its very subject. I suppose it could be compared to Polanski's film Chinatown in this respect; as in that film, good intentions, experience, passion and foresight, the qualities which should create cases of order, come to nothing….

My greatest single reservation about The Toll is that in places it's a trifle over-literary…. Still, a book with a very high charge. (p. 261)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 23, 1974.

It is good orthodox philosophy and good literary theory at once that all knowledge begins with sensation and that one's images must be firmly fixed in reality. A novel by Michael Mewshaw, Earthly Bread, demonstrates the continuing problem of trying to write fiction within the specific limits of one's culture.

Mewshaw will follow, if he can, in the tradition of Catholic comic novelists—O'Connor, J. F. Powers, Walker Percy. His situation is current in the highest degree. A Paulist priest, undergoing a crisis of belief of his own, gets caught up in an attempt to de-program a Jesus freak. The parents of the new convert ask him to accompany the de-programmer they have engaged so that he can provide the necessary "Catholic influence."…

The priest, Father Amico, increasingly wonders just what the phrase "Catholic influence" might mean under the circumstances. Mewshaw has chosen as matter for his fiction something dangerously off the top in terms of contemporary controversy. Perhaps it is not wise to expect much genuine spiritual meaning to be derived from the fuss over standard culture versus counter-culture. (p. 503)

The problem of belief, Mewshaw's intuition appears to tell him, may well have to do with the impact on our senses of the world as we have built it for ourselves. Father Amico complains when he catches himself in a moment of emptiness, "I discovered myself concentrating on the Musak, that ubiquitous aural intrusion, the wallpaper of music. Once back in America, my eyes and ears gorged omnivorously on all manner of insipidness, while my mind tried to avoid more troublesome matters."…

[Everything] that is seen works a hardship on our higher aspirations. Even in the greater open spaces of the West it is our electronics that supplies the images…. And the rest is a long line of motels, bars and junk food stands. The priest furnishes his room out of stuff acquired with savings stamps from the Redemption Center. Who can believe anything with all this around? At this point the novel comes closest perhaps to some kind of realization….

Symbolism has traditionally been a part of religious art. In Earthly Bread, however, symbolic figures are almost always used for purposes of satire and parody…. Mewshaw, like many of his contemporaries, is determined to use the dreck of our culture as part of his novel. The problem in all cases is that it may take an especially fine imagination to keep one's novel from becoming part of the dreck. In Mewshaw's instance, the task might be to transform the symbolism one step beyond a mere satire on how we live our lives to a point of religious affirmation so that it is the signs of an omnipresent God that appear to be ubiquitous….

Once the action moves to a motel room where the de-programmer has taken the Jesus freak, whom he has more or less kidnapped, the novel settles into a series of debates over science and religion and rationality and irrationality. The priest is plainly on the side of the boy, who has taken the new name Tiagatha, and against the de-programmer, Meadlow. Meadlow is pure villain. One of the difficulties of the novel is Mewshaw's inability to separate himself substantially from the counter-culture so as to entertain the notion that de-programming may, in fact, be an accurate, if brutal term—a recognition of a kindred system in its contempt for free will. The religious spirit, one Thaddeus, whose apostle Tiagatha has become, is not around so that although we are provided a grim picture of Meadlow's methods we never see the other's influence at work.

What begs to be considered is that the Jesus revival is at bottom more a rebellion against a set of middle-class values than a closely specified religious creed. Sure enough, the interview with Tiagatha's parents takes place in their expensive suburban home. To say that Christianity has always been in revolt against materialism hardly effects the distinction. If the boy had joined the Hare Krishna movement, it is difficult to see that it would have made any difference to the narrative outcome of the book. Someone with a real stake in living a spiritual life might well find himself caught between the mutually treacherous forces of pseudo-belief and nonbelief….

The impression throughout the novel is that Father Amico is being hounded by God. In the end he is finally able to bring himself to pray.

… In my own room the lone sound was the murmur of the air conditioner, as ceaseless in the performance of its duty as those Carmelite nuns who pray night and day so that every moment all over the world there will be devotion to God.

Once I had undressed and switched off the lamp, I dropped to my knees and added my solitary voice to the world-wide whisper.

What the priest prays over and over again is one word, "Jesus." The scene has its intensity of feeling with the idea of a single prayer being added to the "world-wide whisper," but what kind of irony is intended in connecting the prayers with that great comfort maker, the air conditioner? (p. 504)

Eugene Chesnick, "Fiction and Religious Credibility," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 13, 1976, pp. 503-04.

Michael Mewshaw has a gift for depicting the infinite incongruities of modern American life. In Waking Slow he evoked, in a thousand tiny details, the sense of California as a living parody of itself. His new novel, Earthly Bread, has similar qualities. There is the same whiff of fear—

The dog greeted me by sniffing up the inseam of my trousers until his growling snout was wedged in my crotch.

"Don't bother about him", she said. "He won't bite."

"But he breathes hard, doesn't he?"…

But in this novel, Mr. Mewshaw has forgone the panorama, and concentrated instead on an intense conflict between opposing faiths. The plot is simplicity itself…. [Tommy Hoover] has joined a group of Jesus freaks. The Hoovers have hired the noted "deprogrammer" Noland Meadlow to straighten out the boy's head, but Mrs. Hoover would be grateful if Fr. Amico could extend a Catholic influence over this procedure.

What happens during the deprogramming is the main business of the book. Fairly predictably, the real conflict is not between Meadlow and the boy, but between Meadlow and Amico as the representatives of fate and free will respectively.

[Various] contrivances gradually make it apparent that landscape and incidents must be read symbolically. Fr. Amico's feet are washed by the Hoover boy; he wakes one morning to find a scorpion in his sink; the sun burns ever more fiercely; Meadlow's self-sufficiency begins to crack. Along with this, there is a tendency to underline doctrinal points. Halfway through the contest, Amico notes: "I recognized now what a deprogramming really was—an exorcism in which God, not Satan, was cast out", something most readers will already have worked out for themselves. Yet, for all that, there is considerable wit and energy in the dialectical exchanges, and, as in all the best religious works, sin wins, outright. (p. 740)

David Nokes, "Sin Wins," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 17, 1977, p. 740.