(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In an analysis of John L’Heureux’s short fiction John Gardner compared him to Anton Chekhov, the stodgy old doctor who enjoyed clinically dissecting his characters’ desperate desires and destructive loves. On initially encountering L’Heureux’s characters, with their mind-forged manacles and emotional cages, imprisoned in a muddled world of hopeless disillusion, a reader might sympathize with Gardner’s assessment, but a deeper reading reveals that above this surface of disorder and despair dwells a transcendent God who may or may not be enjoying the human comedy. For L’Heureux, the cord between the meaningless absurdity of life and the meaningfulness of religious faith is weak and easily frayed, but God is still able to write straight with crooked lines. L’Heureux seems to enjoy making his characters’ lives as tortuous as possible, the better to bring out the irony of God (one of his favorite themes). Humans seem to make messes of their lives, and yet his characters, even though they may have lost the sense that anything transcends their troubled existences, somehow muddle through to an encounter with something (someone?) larger and more meaningful than themselves.

L’Heureux’s stories, with their caustic insights and wicked wit, have been compared to the works of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, two writers he admires. Despite the bleakness of life detailed in many of his stories, L’Heureux has said that he still believes in God, and he believes even more deeply in the amazing grace that can save the wretches about whom he writes. As a Jesuit priest, he was duty-bound to save the world, to do everything “for the greater glory of God” (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s motto for the Society of Jesus, which he founded), but as a man of the world L’Heureux has said that he writes for his own salvation, not the world’s. He sees his stories as “a pack of lies intended to entertain and illumine and dismay.” Nevertheless, he does try to probe the mystery underlying or overarching the few truths he knows for certain, for example, that people carry within themselves the means of their own destruction—or salvation. In his stories he tries to create something good that will help people “appreciate the wonders of another person, or of being alive.”

In several of his best-known and most successful stories L’Heureux portrays priests and former priests, whose crises often arise from the conflicts between their sacred and secular lives. His fictional creations often discover an ineradicable egocentricity that lies at the core of even their most spiritual activities. For some critics, L’Heureux’s stories about the religious life are a lament for the world he lost when he left the Jesuits. For others, particularly those who have remained in the religious life, his depictions of priests and nuns who are more avid about sex than salvation, more eager for alcoholic spirits than the Holy Spirit, are demeaning and untrue to the lives they have experienced in their service of God. While the priests and nuns of L’Heureux’s stories share little common ground with their fictional predecessors in the novels of Georges Bernanos and Graham Greene, or with the movie incarnations played by Bing Crosby and Julie Andrews, their lives are not as totally lacking in redeeming spiritual value as some of his detractors contend. In his own defense L’Heureux emphasizes that his duty as a writer is to create people as they really are—on the way to redemption but not there yet.

“Fox and Swan”

Judging from interviews and several of his short stories, L’Heureux’s break with the Jesuit Order after sixteen years of service occasioned much soul-searching, and it is understandable that he dealt with the feelings generated by this wrenching event, albeit in a transformed way, in some of his stories. Indeed, several of the stories in his first collection, Family Affairs, have the religious life as their subject, and for some critics his stories about priests and nuns are more convincing than those with secular protagonists. Martha Foley selected “Fox and Swan” to appear in The Best American Short Stories 1972. The story focuses on Francis Xavier Madden, a Jesuit working for his doctorate at Harvard University, who is agonizing over his vocation (he is called “fox” by a girl who finds his beard “groovy”). He...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)