The tone of David R. Slavitt’s novel Lives of the Saints reflects his literary career. His novels The Hussar (1987) and Salazar Blinks (1988), his books of poetry The Walls of Thebes (1 986) and Equinox (1989), and his 1990 translation Ovid’s Poetry of Exile are, as it were, some of his credentials for such a tone. In addition, Slavitt has been a college professor and a film critic for Newsweek; the narrator-protagonist ofLives of the Saints himself is a former college teacher and writes for theStar, a sensationalist tabloid. As an intellectual, he philosophizes on the events and characters of the novel, punctuating his commentary with allusions to everything from the half-life of uranium to the Tang Dynasty poets Yuan Chen and Po Chu-yi.
The narrator’s grief over the death of his wife Leah and his daughter Pam in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, James Macrae, moves him to ask why such a senseless tragedy should happen. Moreover, his managing editor at the Star, Sidney Lansberg, allows him to extend this question by assigning him to investigate six people randomly shot to death by a remorseless nobody, John Babcock, in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly store in Florida.
Steeped in his own loss, and fascinated by these random murders, the narrator turns to the philosophy of Nicolas de Malebranche, a late seventeenth, early eighteenth century French Catholic priest. Malebranche writes that the human world (and nature, for that matter) is not defined by cause and effect, but by destiny. No one, moreovei; can predict what is going to happen to him or her; only God knows this, and no one can know God’s mind.
This view of human affairs leads the narrator to juxtapose the victims in the novel to the saints of Roman Catholic hagiography. This is ironic since he is a Jew, and doubly ironic since he does not believe in God. He finds, therefore, the lives and deaths of both saints and victims absurd—indeed, in being irrational and unpredictable, fuel for his depression and his elegantly savage humor.
Lansberg complicates this similarity between saints and victims when he tells the narrator to write a series of articles on the belongings or “relics” of the latter. The point is to provide the kind of gruesome copy that the tabloid’s readers feed upon.
The narrator concentrates on four of the victims who occasion the assignment:
Amanda Hapgood, a divorcee; Laura Bowers, an embezzler; Roger Stratton, a poet and college Fnglish professor; and Fdward Springer, a child. Nothing in these victims’ lives points to their bizarre deaths, of which the narrator becomes poignantly sure when, by way of gaining access to their belongings, he interviews those who were close to the victims.
As for the saints themselves, they are a good example, in the narrator’s mind, of Malebranche’s philosophy; one’s choices are not really choices at all, but part of an impenetrable design. That these saints’ lives, like the deaths of Babcock’s victims, are outlandish arouses the narrator’s sense of humor.
In this vein, he mentions Saint Barbara, among other saints. According to legend, she insisted that her family’s privy have three windows in it in honor of the Blessed Trinity. When she would not listen to reason, her father beheaded her, then was himself struck dead by lightning. Saint Fustace is absurdly amusing, too, as the narrator sees it. This saint was a Roman general during the reign of Trajan. He converted to Christianity, simply because he saw a cross in the configuration of a stag’s antlers. At first he lost his position, and his wife and sons left him. He recovered both when the army needed him for a campaign, during which he won an important battle. He refused, however, to offer sacrifice to the gods for this victory. He was martyred for not doing so, and—to compound the absurdity—his wife and sons were executed along with him. Saint Lucy also died for her faith. The humor in her destiny arises from its circumstances. She was committed to a brothel by a suitor whom she had rejected. Her chastity actually survived this, as did she the death by fire decreed for her. It took a sword shoved down her throat to kill her.
The saints who were not martyred had absurd destinies, too, the narrator points out. Blessed Lydwina is one of the more laughable of these. She was paralyzed by an ice-skating accident when she was sixteen, and later she went blind. The legend goes that she offered up her suffering for the sins of others, had visions, and ate nothing but the Fucharist after...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)