Alfred Corn (review date 29 January 1989)

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SOURCE: "Trouble in the Form of a Redhead," in New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Corn asserts that in How I Got Him Back, Sayers shows great promise as a novelist. Corn also compares her work to that of other...

(The entire section contains 15040 words.)

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SOURCE: "Trouble in the Form of a Redhead," in New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, Corn asserts that in How I Got Him Back, Sayers shows great promise as a novelist. Corn also compares her work to that of other celebrated southern writers.]

Southerners are sexy, but that is only part of the problem. Yankees who saw the movie The Big Chill, shot in Beaufort, S.C., were made aware by the setting and some of the characters that there is a New South, populated by a restive generation that has survived the upheavals of the 1960's and is now more or less resigned to assimilation into Middle America. Valerie Sayers, who grew up in Beaufort and has published one earlier novel, Due East, gives a fair sample of the new breed in her second book [How I Got Him Back]. This story is also set in the fictional town of Due East, S. C., which bears a strong resemblance to Beaufort, with its old white-columned houses and newer suburban homes, the closeness of salt marshes and the sea and a staunch little congregation of Roman Catholics in the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Nearly all the characters in How I Got Him Back are Catholic, and at least two of them are concerned with the problems mentioned in the title. Becky Perdue refuses to believe that her husband, Jack, really means to leave her for a common redhead with no education named Judi. Marygail Dugan hopes despite everything that she has not lost her husband, Stephen, to a young unmarried mother named Mary Faith Rapple. Life in Due East is anything but placid.

One of the ladies of the church's Altar Guild, who serve in this novel as a sort of deploring Greek chorus, asks, "You suppose the whole world is living in sin?" and receives the reply, based on recent Due East gossip: "You better believe it." They probably don't even know that Tim Rooney, a sort of Berriganish avant-garde Catholic, is having an affair with Eileen Connelly, the plain dish of ordinary sex improved by the salsa of exhibitionism and bondage. Spiritual leadership in the parish is no doubt flagging. Father Berkeley, a whisky priest with a good heart but declining powers, does what he can but is often indisposed. In fact, drink adds to Becky Perdue's difficulties as well, alienating her from all but one of her four children and giving Jack Perdue grounds for a custody suit. Madness never seems far away from the women involved in the marital tug-of-war, and eventually it overtakes Marygail on Easter weekend just before her baptism into that church outside of which there is no salvation.

Ms. Sayers has a complicated story, and she uses a number of methods to tell it—first- and third-person narration, letters, interior reverie, even a suite of rankly amateur poems written by Marygail. Tim, Becky and Stephen are the intellectuals, able to bring perspectives from Pascal, Donne, Blake and Graham Greene to bear on the stuff of their lives. (Father Berkeley, too, with his chronic doubt and his afternoon brandy, has certainly fictionalized himself with Greene's help.) The whole novel has a definite Christian-symbolic substructure, beginning in the season of Epiphany and moving toward Passiontide, when all the plot threads suddenly knot up together in a way that hints at divine intervention. This mixture of soap-opera plot, sacred story, sitcom humor, sex and analysis makes for heady reading. Ms. Sayers's first novel was praised for its passion and this one is equally vehement, filled with sharp confrontations, broad gestures and recklessly driven cars.

These characters are memorable and believable, however much they startle with excursions into the abnormal. Ms. Sayers has a gift for voice and the honest, gritty commentary about human behavior in stressful circumstances. She writes clearly and forcefully, with her own version of the humor that Southern writers from Eudora Welty to Flannery O'Connor to Reynolds Price use so tellingly. Her asides and filling in of the characters' past histories are marked by unusual powers of observation and fresh angles on ordinary experience. A writer with as much talent as Valerie Sayers will be almost certain in future books to take more trouble with narrative sequence, to dispense with melodramatic flourishes, to write more concisely and to make her conclusions more plausible. Better than getting spouses back is simply never to lose them in the first place, Ms. Sayers has the basic equipment to enthrall quite a wide and faithful readership.

Deanna D'Errico (review date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: "Two Timers," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 4, Summer 1989, p. 7.

[In the following review, D'Errico praises Sayers's evocative portrayal of people and places in How I Got Him Back, calling her "a virtuoso of portraiture."]

Mary Faith Rapple, unwed mother and heroine of Valerie Sayers's outstanding first novel, Due East, has been "crazy in love" with Stephen Dugan since she bared her pregnant body to him at age fifteen. Now, in How I Got Him Back, she is almost twenty-one; he has promised to leave his wife and marry her. But as she sits in the park, waiting to feed Stephen a bag of cold crab omelets that she made from a recipe in that morning's newspaper, she reflects "with a chill that becomes less and less pronounced as she grew used to its presence … that [he] had become very fond of her and her boy. Fond. Once he had been passionate…. She had to think of a way to make him want her so badly that he wouldn't mention custody and marriage." Will Mary Faith get Stephen back?

Marygail Dugan was nineteen when she met husband-to-be Stephen: "nut-brown, horse-faced, horse-toothed, skinny, angular, all elbows and knees. She wore micro-miniskirts and pink tank tops made of spun sugar: she looked just fine and she knew it, too." For years she has ignored Stephen and occupied herself instead with drugs, the Due East Little Theater, and sleeping with Marines. But now Stephen has sold a screenplay, and she is afraid that "he is going to be rich and try to take Maureen away from me and I'll have to go back to Columbia and live with Momma and Daddy and go to the country club every afternoon and play tennis with lawyers' wives. Oh god, OhgodOhgodOhgodOhgod." Will Marygail get Stephen back?

Becky Perdue's husband, Jack, has left her after some twenty years of marriage for Judi with an i, a dyed redhead who paints hearts on her fingernails. She has felt nothing but contempt for him for years; she had never forgiven him for being an Izod-clad real estate agent instead of an intellectual. But now that he is gone. Becky has fallen into a "black hole." She has gotten drunk in the middle of the day on nips of Rebel Yell she has found in her son's closet and is unable even to clean the cereal bowls off the kitchen island that, along with acres of beige carpet, she loathes. "I grew up in Due East, and as far as I'm concerned, islands were made to take boats to. Islands were made to leave you with sunburns and chiggers and ticks. They were not made to be in the middle of my kitchen." Jack finds Becky in this state, and Becky finds herself thinking "he was wearing a yellow alligator shirt and his belly pressed it out in a roll over the top of his pants. His belly looked like a lump of dough and I couldn't believe that after all these years of having Jack's stomach revolt me I suddenly wanted to take this lump of pale dough and knead it." Will Becky get Jack back?

The novel itself is a bit of little theater in which the plot is propelled by numerous questions. Will Tim Rooney, the unemployed philosopher who distinguished himself to the town by taking a whiz in the front pew of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Christmas Day ever win Mary Faith's love? Will the tired and aging Father Berkeley stop drinking long enough to find a new site for the church, and does he have enough faith left to shepherd the faithless back into the fold? Will the ladies of the Altar Guild ever stop fighting over what flowers to put at Mary's feet, and will they heed May's prediction that Marygail will choose Easter for her nervous breakdown? Will the rain let up enough for Stephen's made-for-TV movie to be filmed on location in Due East? Will Becky or Mary Faith ever forget the image of Eileen Connelly, naked and bound, standing in Tim Rooney's bedroom window?

Who gets whom back and other questions, titillating as they are, are beside the point. The ample pleasure of reading this novel lies in getting to know its fascinating cast of characters intimately and in glimpsing how their lives intersect. Sayers is a virtuoso of portraiture. This group portrait develops detail by detail through the multiple third-person points of view like particles of light that, when absorbed through Sayers's lens, bring into clear outline another angle of a character's personality.

The occasional shift to first person is somewhat jarring—as if a character suddenly steps forward and speaks out loud in your ear. But Sayers pulls it off, and when you read Stephen's confession, you are likely to nod your head in agreement and then forgive him, and Sayers, for reaching out from the page and grabbing your lapel.

I have never been comfortable in the first person, any more than I've been comfortable in this marriage or in this affair. For years I have written a hokey weekly column and daily drivel for the Courier without resorting to the first person. For years I have churned out I-less poems and sent them off to obscure literary quarterlies which had never before published poems not written in the first person. A dissertation, two unpublished novels, a made-for-TV movie script so bad it's good, so bad it scares me: pages, folders, cartons of work, all without resorting to the voice of choice in the 1980s.

Sayers's characters are so three-dimensional that readers may find themselves both liking and disliking them, hoping that they will succeed and that they will not. The second visit to Due East is even better than the first, and I hope that Sayers will allow us to come again.

Pinckney Benedict (review date 10 March 1991)

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SOURCE: "A Girl's March away from Innocence," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 10, 1991, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Benedict finds the ending of Who Do You Love somewhat unsatisfying but asserts that the novel overall "fulfills its mission."]

The action of Valerie Sayers's new novel, Who Do You Love, takes place during the fateful month of November 1963 in the small South Carolina coastal town of Due East. At the center of the book stands the Rooney family. Catholics living in "a place where the other kids called you mackerel snapper and asked you were the nuns bald under those habits."

That's the way Bill Rooney, the failing pater familias of Who Do You Love, describes his home town, which also is the setting for Sayers's two previous novels, Due East and How I Got Him Back. Bill is a Southerner, raised not far from Due East, who moved to New York City to be a jazz piano player and then returned to his home ground with his young bride.

Dolores Rooney is that bride, 15 years and three children later. A transplanted Yankee, still uncomfortable in the South, she has a penchant for condescending imitations of her Southern acquaintances ("We might could get there in time for the little old sun to set") and for saying things like, "Oh Lord, I guess I've been down South too long. I'm getting so native." It's little wonder that she manages to set on edge the teeth of virtually every Southerner around her.

Bill and Dolores' three children are Andy, Tim and 11-year-old Kate, who is the youngest and a "boiling pot," as her mother describes her. The chief concern of Who Do You Love is Kate's resolute march from innocence into knowledge, and much of the narrative is built around her various misadventures. These are presented in Kate's precocious, sometimes precious vocabulary (she firmly asserts that the Rooneys were "the very last the penultimate family" in Due East to buy a television), which is one of the chief charms of the book.

The primary dramatic episode arises from Kate's failure to distinguish drunken seduction from murder and mayhem. When she trails a threatening local figure known as the Snake Man to his trailer, she believes she's witnessing a kid-naping and killing. Her confusion about what is actually a sexual encounter lasts too long to be entirely credible, but the episode is well-realized:

The Snake Man was kissing the Victim. The Snake Man had paused in front of her hiding place to kiss that poor girl who was so lost in her own terror that she could not support herself to stand up straight. Kate considered showing herself at just that instant: she could climb the bank and cry out like a banshee.

Occasionally, however, Kate's language gets away from Sayers. When Kate can't keep her thoughts from returning to a salacious image, Sayers writes that "the girl in the red nightie's thigh reappeared." When Kate feels tension, we learn that "her lips were streaked with little white surges of panic." Somewhat more diverting is Sayers's fondness for rendering her characters' inarticulate noises. One man says, "Awhhh. Pfff," Bill Rooney utters the classic comic book groan, "Argh," and a kiss is represented as follows: "Chhhhchhhhhchhhhh-smmmooochch." I would love to hear Sayers read that passage aloud.

Another of the book's charms is its ability to move from one character's mind into another's. Kate and Dolores provide the dominant narrative threads, but Bill's point of view occasionally takes over. And each of these characters has a unique voice and vision.

While Kate spends much of her time in jittery contemplation of the mystery of her sexuality, Dolores is convinced that the girl is independently knowledgeable and secure. Kate is ashamed that she doesn't yet own a bra, that she is "the only sixth-grader who would never have a boy come along and thwang! pull the back strap of her Maidenform."

Still, Kate believes that she cannot ask her preoccupied mother about such an intimate subject. Dolores, on the other hand, assumes that her daughter chooses proudly to exhibit her blossoming adulthood "without a brassiere and without apology."

Bill Rooney has his own misconceptions. He imagines that his pregnant wife is a listless romantic, given to daydreams and brief flirtations. In fact, she is a woman of vast, often misdirected passion, who engaged in incest with a cousin as a teenager, who had an affair with a wealthy young neighbor during her first pregnancy and who now feels herself being drawn inexorably into another affair, this time with a visiting reporter from the New York Times.

But if Dolores' yearnings push her into doomed sexual relationships, her conscience, trained by Catholic notions of guilt and mortal sin, pricks her constantly.

The novel's chief plot lines—Dolores' advancing affair, Bill's approaching bankruptcy, Kate's discovery of sex and of her mother's infidelity—are bound together rather loosely. And the book's final episode, in which the Rooney family and all of Due East react to the news that President Kennedy has been assassinated, doesn't really resolve the various storylines.

The Kennedy denouement is telegraphed on the first page, where the month and year are prominently proclaimed; and the sense that the shooting will be pivotal is reinforced by the frequent references the characters make to Kennedy. By the time Kate's teacher says to her class, "I'd like you all to prepare yourselves for an announcement," the reader has been waiting for that particular shoe to drop for some 300 pages. Nor is Kennedy's death presented as the epiphany one might expect; instead it is just another episode in a novel made of episodes.

But despite its shortcomings, Who Do You Love deals fairly and entertainingly with all of its interesting principal players, giving each of them their due time on stage. Determinedly amiable, it is a novel that fulfills its mission.

Howard Frank Mosher (review date 7 April 1991)

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SOURCE: "24 Hours in Due East, S. C.," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 96, pp. 3, 29.

[In the following review, Mosher finds Who Do You Love a satisfying, likeable, and well-written novel.]

Over the past decade or so, a number of America's finest younger novelists have staked out fictional claims on out-of-the-way corners of the country. Sometimes referred to by critics as the "new regionalism," this fiction is, in fact, neither especially new nor, in any limiting or quaint sense of the word, regional. One thinks, for example, of the dark and decaying New England mill towns of Ernest Hebert and Russell Banks, of Cathie Pelletier's remote Canadian border terrain with its idiosyncratic clans of French and Yankee backwoodsmen, and of Ivan Doig's high Western plains, rich in historical lore.

Who Do You Love, Valerie Sayers's third book set, like her previous novels Due East and How I Got Him Back, in the appealingly named coastal town of Due East, S. C., is a book written in just this tradition. Perched on an off-the-beaten-track fringe of the Atlantic seaboard, Due East is a community of stately white houses with wide yards shaded by live oak and pecan trees, long-established family businesses catering mainly to the nearby Parris Island Marine base, and attractive beaches guarded by vast wetlands and scrub woods unspoiled enough to hold wildcats—not to mention rattlesnakes. With its lovely late-afternoon sunlight and seaside vistas and easygoing pace—the main topic of conversation downtown on an unseasonably warm fall day seems to be whether to turn on the air conditioners—it's a place you could fall in love with at first sight and settle down in for life.

Dolores Rooney, a wide-eyed young college student from New York, did exactly that back in 1946; and even now, 17 years older and only too well aware of Due East's grimy underside and moral shortcomings. Dolores is still full of affection for her adopted home. "Never mind the trailer lots on the way out of town, or the lucky cheap gas stations on the highway; never mind, just for the moment, the mean little plumbingless shacks on the Islands, where they painted the doors and window frames blue to ward off evil spirits, never mind the rednecks five miles up the road. At just this dreamy moment Due East was so sublime that it was almost a spiritual, not a physical, place: even the brown marsh grass, squatting in brown mud at low tide, was beautiful."

Not that Dolores doesn't have her own share of midlife problems. The novel opens in November 1963, on the eve of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, with Dolores, 37 years old and pregnant with her fifth child, full of concern about her family. Kate, her precocious 11-year-old, is preoccupied with doubts about sex; for weeks now, she's spent hours a day conducting covert (and very funny) dictionary word searches, with maddeningly redundant results "She'd found intercourse: intercourse meant copulation and copulation meant coitus and coitus meant intercourse." Dolores's older daughter is off at college, with two brothers soon to follow. Bill, Dolores's well-meaning but feckless husband, is at his wit's end to keep his failing little real estate business afloat. Moreover, as liberals and practicing Roman Catholics in a predominantly conservative, Protestant community—where businessmen drift into one another's shops to tell the latest racist jokes, and the respected local druggist has had his soda fountain yanked out in order to outwit the impending integration laws—the Rooneys frequently find themselves out of step with their neighbours.

Although Dolores appears to be entirely in control of her life, she's haunted by guilt dating back to two events in her past: a sexual liaison, when she was 13, with a cousin who went on to become a priest and a brief affair with a graduate student soon after she was married. As a result, Dolores's entire adult life has been one long, unsuccessful act of atonement—from her feverish volunteer work on church and community projects to her self-mortifying choice of reading material, including St. Thomas Aquinas's more misogynistic pronouncements and St. Teresa of Avila's "Way of Perfection." The sad fact is that Dolores McGillicudhy Rooney can hardly walk down the street without being overcome by remorse.

Structurally, Ms. Sayers's latest, and best, fictional exploration of Due East unfolds almost entirely within a 24-hour period culminating in President Kennedy's assassination, with numerous reminiscences filling in the Rooney family background. On a few occasions in the early chapters, the pace flags briefly with the introduction of overly long personal histories. But the novel quickly picks up with the sudden development of a whirlwind romantic attachment between Dolores and a young New York Times reporter named Tom Prince, who is in town to cover a court-martial at Parris Island.

From her first chance encounter with Tom Prince, Dolores is amused by his youthful and ingratiating manner, by her own infatuation and by the awkwardness, comic and otherwise, of their situation. After giving Tom a guided tour of the town, Dolores invites him home for dinner with Bill and the kids. Wine and talk flow freely, so much so that the meal ends with a Rooney family donny-brook over, typically enough, religion and politics. Later, Dolores seeks Tom out at his motel to apologize, and the ensuing scene is sexy and funny in about equal parts.

Throughout the novel, Ms. Sayers's unsparing yet unfailingly good-natured sense of humor sets the tone for her skillful handling of a wealth of material. Nothing, is sacred—from boozing old Bill's secret (and hilarious) sexual fantasies, to the most intimate disclosures of the confessional booth, to Mrs. Always-a-Lady Lovelace's sixth-grade classroom's first response to the news of J. F. K.'s death. "This mean they won't integrate the high school next year?"

Humor and irony, family history, an unusual and fascinating setting, affecting characters—Who Do You Love has them all, along with a racy, light-handed prose style that's never less than entertaining. In the end, you have the satisfied sense of having spent much longer than a mere 24 hours in Due East. And Dolores? Without spoiling the novel's wonderfully affirmative ending, it's fair to say that she manages to achieve at last, in a single crowded day, a remarkably wise insight into herself and her relationship with her big, squabbling, funny, smart, problem-ridden and immensely likable family.

Brewster M. Robertson with Valerie Sayers (interview date 7 February 1994)

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SOURCE: An interview with Valerie Sayers, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 6, February 7, 1994, p. 66.

[In the following interview, Sayers discusses her career and influences, as well as major themes in her novels.]

Both geographically and culturally, the moss-bearded live oaks and white-columned antebellum mansions fronting the waterfront on Bay Street in idyllic Beaufort, S. C., seem far removed from the labeled Golden Dome crowning the Administration Building at Notre Dame University. But for novelist Valerie Sayers, newly appointed Director of Creative Writing at the South Bend, Ind., university, homegrown Beaufort is the connecting link to her literary roots.

Sayers's road from Beaufort to South Bend includes a 20-year detour by way of New York, where she began her writing career. Her fourth novel, The Distance Between Us, is out this month from Doubleday in a 100,000-copy first printing, and Sayers has embarked on a 12-city, coast-to-coast reading tour. An appearance in nearby Charleston has allowed an overnight sidetrip to visit her mother and two sisters, who still live in the picturesque community that cinema-goers would recognize as the setting for the films The Big Chill and The Prince of Tides.

Sayers readily acknowledges Beaufort as the model for the fictional town of Due East, which gave her first published novel its title and has since become the wellspring for her work. The town may well figure in a movie version; Propaganda Films is holding options on both Due East and Sayers's second novel, How I Got Him Back.

Walking along the sun-dappled Beaufort dockside in sweatshirt and jeans, the 41-year-old Sayers looks more like a freckle-faced coed than a professor. Time has not diminished her affection for her native city, which she recalls as a magical place in which to grow up. Going off to Fordham in New York City at age 17 was "like Alice falling down the rabbit hole," she says. "I always assumed I'd come back here to live, but it just hasn't been in the cards."

In The Distance Between Us Sayers traces a collection of flower-children through the rebellious '60s, uprooting a pair of socioeconomically antithetical soulmates from their rural Southern backwater and scattering them to the four winds. Brassy antiheroine Frances Starkey is one of nine offspring of an Irish-Catholic high school principal in the largely Protestant town. Searching for a "bed of her own," she becomes compulsively promiscuous, a trait that blights her romance with Steward Morehouse, grandson of the town's wealthiest citizen.

Grieving over her father's untimely death, artistic Franny enrolls in a Catholic university near Washington, D.C., where she is confronted with a collection of hard-drinking, hash-smoking Jesuit priests who wink at their own random womanizing and espouse a sensualistic version of social-protest Catholicism. There she meets and eventually marries alcoholic Michael Burke, an aspiring writer.

The middle section of the book is a surreal fiction-within-a-fiction screenplay, in which Michael romanticizes the couple's honeymoon in Ireland as an ill-fated gunrunning adventure for the IRA. Sayers had never attempted screenwriting before, and she says she was "terrified" that readers would put down the book at that point. She emphasizes that her goal was not simply to do something offbeat; the idea developed organically from the plot. As it turned out, the screenplay, with its surprising denouement, is one of the most effective parts of the narrative.

When asked about possible autobiographical content in her early novels, Sayers dances coquettishly around the issue. In The Distance Between Us, however, such content is hard to miss. Like heroine Franny, Sayers recalls working summers at the tomato-packing sheds out near the airport on Lady's Island. "Everybody I ran around with worked there … it was the social event of the year." Sayers says. And, like daddy's-girl Franny, Sayers adored her father and went north to attend his alma mater. Sayers was devastated when he died of a heart attack while she was a sophomore at Fordham. "My father was wonderful, funny and unflappable. He was my inspiration," she says.

The fourth of seven children of damn-Yankee Irish-Catholic parents. Sayers was born after the family moved to Beaufort, where her father was employed as a civilian psychologist at the Parris Island Marine Recruit Depot. Along with tomato farming and the shrimping industry, the local Marine and Naval installations remain today the economic lifeblood of the area.

As an undergrad at Fordham, Sayers met Christian Jara, who was studying to become a filmmaker, as does Steward Moorhouse in the novel. Sayers is quick to point out that Christian is nothing like Franny's husband, alcoholic Michael Burke. She admits, however, that she knew "roguish priests. I don't remember ever going to a party without someone trying to con me for IRA gunrunning money." Then as now, her seemingly ingenuous, upbeat manner can be deceiving. "A drama teacher once told me it was obvious I had no firsthand experience with four-letter words," she recalls. "I didn't bother to tell him what a trash-mouth I really was. I suppose that outwardly I might convey an air of innocence, but as a writer my job is to tell the truth."

Following graduation in 1973, Sayers returned to Beaufort to teach at the Technical College of the Low-country for a year. She recalls afternoons spent reading Dickens, Eliot and Faulkner in her favorite sanctuary: the huge, embracing limb of a live oak. She also felt a strong sympathy with Flannery O'Connor, who grew up in Savannah, less than an hour down the road.

The writing course Sayers taught at Tech reawakened her own interest in the craft. Her family had always encouraged her to write, she says, and in high school she had produced the teen column for the Beaufort Gazette. "But the idea of writing as a career seemed too intimidating, on the one hand, and not very glamorous on the other. In college I tried poetry, but I wasn't very good. It was that year teaching at Tech when I became interested in writing fiction."

At that point, however, Jara came down to Beaufort to sweep Sayers off to the altar. The couple returned to Manhattan, where Jara pursued opportunities as a filmmaker and where Sayers enrolled in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Columbia. Her thesis was a collection of stories. "At that stage, the idea of something on the magnitude of a novel seemed impossible," she says.

Her next teaching job, at an arm of CUNY, generated serious commitment to her own work. By the time her son, Christian, was born in 1978, she was immersed in rewriting her first novel. "Most likely, Chris will tell you that Christian's first word was, 'typewriter,'" she laughs.

Now gathering dust in her South Bend basement, that first effort was titled My Sister Has Left Me. Sayers says wryly, "That title should tell you something about the level of my prose at that stage."

The book was good enough to win the attention of her first agent, however. (Sayers does not wish to disclose the agent's name, since their parting was not amicable. Southern good manners seem to underlie her reluctance.) Although no publisher bought that initial effort, Sayers was undaunted by rejection slips and began writing another book. "Having an agent provided all the validation I needed to move ahead," she observes.

About the time her son Raul was born in 1983. Sayers had finished that second book, which became Due East. Its heroine is teenager Mary Faith Rapple, brought up Baptist, who proclaims herself an atheist and insists that the baby she conceives is the product of a virgin birth. "That book is about faith and the hope of redemption," Sayers says. The manuscript, originally titled "After My Mother Died," made the rounds for two years. She had "about given up" when editor Lisa Wager read the book and bought it for Doubleday late in 1985. It was at Wager's suggestion that Sayers used the name of the seacoast town as the title.

Sayers was distressed when Wager, having edited about half of How I Got Him Back, left for Putnam. The manuscript was turned over to Casey Fuetsch. "I've been twice blessed," Sayers says. "Casey makes me better than I know how to be."

How I Got Him Back (1989) tells of three women who lose their men and decide to do something about it. While writing Who Do You Love, Sayers became aware of "increasing philosophical differences" with her agent, and she deliberately kept herself uncommitted on the new manuscript. Although she says she will always feel deeply grateful for that agent's efforts on her behalf, she felt it was time for a change. Accepting ICM's Esther Newberg's offer to represent the new manuscript was, says Sayers, "the best decision of my career."

A Catholic woman pregnant with her fifth child is the protagonist of Who Do You Love. Trapped in a disheartening marriage, she is contemplating an adulterous affair. Sayers invests the situation with emotional complexity and historical resonance by setting the story during the evening before, and in the morning of, November 22, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated.

Asked about her preoccupation with Catholicism, Sayers quickly points out that her first heroine, Mary Faith Rapple, was a Baptist. She concedes that early on she may have been subconsciously using the Baptist religion as a metaphorical catchall to camouflage her need to write about faith and the Catholic experience. She says, however, that at that stage it never occurred to her that Catholicism would play such a large part in her later work.

Sayers's storylines are always complicated by eddies of religious ambivalence. While sin and hope of redemption are the reassuring themes, an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the Church always renders her epiphanies slightly bittersweet. She explains the obscure tripartite wordplay in the title, How I Got Him Back: "Recapture of the errant male; Revenge for his transgression; and Redemption. HIM meaning GOD!"

Asked to describe herself in a single word, Sayers laughingly replies: "Radical!" Fellow novelist and friend Lois Battle—a transplanted Australian schooled under the strict hands of the nuns, who now makes her home in Beaufort—agrees. "Valerie is an intellectual and a free spirit, but you have to understand, she's Catholic to the core," Battle says. "You can translate that as complicated!"

Sayers agrees with that assessment. "I'm definitely Catholic—and that comes with a lot of guilt-ridden baggage. But make no mistake, while I'm rebellious and while sometimes I get very put out with the Church's rigidity, the unyielding hierarchy, the antiquated structure, I have never had a moment's crisis of personal faith."

And things do seem to work out for her. She is enchanted with her teaching assignment at Notre Dame, a job she found via the prosaic route of an advertisement in the MLA job list. Characteristically, she announces, "We're truly blessed. Chris can produce videos from almost anywhere, and the university allows me complete freedom to write and travel to do publicity for my books."

She reads other contemporary novelists with enjoyment. High on her list is Maureen Howard's Natural History, "for the density and richness of its language." She also admires Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy "for his startling prose style." It should not be surprising that both novels have Catholic themes.

Sayers's next novel, Brain Fever, reintroduces Tim Rooney, a character from an earlier book. "The last Catholic existentialist in the South," Rooney has denied his faith and is having a nervous breakdown. But this time the Due East setting may give her trouble, observes Sayers, tongue in cheek. She and PW are driving across the Lady's Island drawbridge after a trip out to Hunting Island, where she has pointed out the location of Aunt Blinky's cabin, the remote setting for the final scene of The Distance Between Us. Waving her hand at the seabirds circling lazily above the church-steepled skyline, she asks, "Can you imagine someone actually having a nervous breakdown in a place like this?"

Jill McCorkle (review date 20 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "One Good, One Bad, One Angry," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, February 20, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, McCorkle finds The Distance Between Us skillfully written and thematically realistic.]

Valerie Sayers's fourth novel, The Distance Between Us, explores some 40 years in the lives of Steward Morehouse and Franny Starkey, an unlikely couple devoted to a relationship that for the most part exists and thrives on what might have been. Raised by his wealthy paternal grandparents and his exotic mother, to whom Franny bears a striking resemblance. Steward is a young Southern gentleman with a healthy trust fund. The daughter of a high school principal, Franny is the town "bad" girl, a green-eyed Scarlett O'Hara gone to seed. What they ultimately have in common, other than roots in Due East, S. C., and a strong physical attraction to each other, is the loss of their fathers.

It is this same loss that first links Franny to Michael Burke, her future husband and the third point of the novel's romantic triangle. He is an "angry young man" whose Irish features are used to telegraph his temperament. Michael is bitter toward his father, who died of alcoholism, yet he indulges in the very cycle that produced his resentment, drinking heavily and taking any drug available. Franny's weakness lies in her decision to stay with Michael, even as her sexual desires are driven by her sense of loss. Steward also bounces between relationships (including an affair with Franny's sister). Salvation for each depends in many ways on artistic ambition (Franny paints, Michael writes, Steward makes films); here they vent and reinvent their lives.

While these characters are often unsympathetic, Ms. Sayers's skillful plotting still provides enough tension to hold the reader's interest and drive the novel forward. From South Carolina to Ireland to New York, she stirs up endless possibilities, turns where you least expect them. And her ability to skip large periods of time gracefully, only to loop back and fill in the blanks, creates the sort of distance between episodes that allows us to see Franny, Michael and Steward mirroring reality in their art. Among Franny's paintings, for example, we notice a most revealing Last Supper, in which the faces and bodies are those of all her past lovers. Meanwhile, Steward attempts to balance his silver-spoon roots by making a documentary about the woman who kept house for his grandparents.

Many of the minor characters are colorful and endearing. Gloria, the housekeeper, Michael's mother, who is in a rest home in her later years; Franny's brain-damaged brother, Walter, who sings a constant chorus of "Harrigan"; Franny's college roommate Peggy, who in the late 1960's "could have been poster girl for the Catholic College Women's Association, circa 1955"; and Michael's longtime friend Kevin, who proves to be a disturbing misfit. They represent the solid realities within the lives of the three central characters, and their presence serves to illuminate this somewhat jarring triangle. In addition, the subplots that spin out from the experiences of Ms. Sayers's supporting cast provide some of the novel's most moving scenes.

The stability offered by its fringe characters is vital to The Distance Between Us, since Steward, Franny and Michael tend to be somewhat chameleon-like. Michael goes from political organizer to computer-magazine editor to boyish-looking screenwriter and novelist. His beard comes and goes, depending on his mood. Franny starts out attractively wild and winds up a hardened, jaded mother of four. Steward ventures from Due East to Hollywood.

At one point, Steward talks about the manuscripts that are submitted to him, mentioning that he even received one novel with a screenplay right in the middle. Here Ms. Sayers allows his eye to direct us toward her own work; in the middle of The Distance Between Us we find Michael's first screenplay. The Gunrunners, in which he features characters named Franny and Michael Burke, dramatizing their lives in a way that paints both truthful and distorted visions of their future paths. This digression, though important in establishing Michael's character, sometimes strains the reader's patience.

Despite such lapses, Ms. Sayers (whose previous novels include Due East and How I Got Him Back) is a first-rate writer, her prose rich with memorable descriptions that bring her landscapes, particularly the Southern ones, into sharp focus. If at times her story feels weighted down, this derives less from her very appealing style than from the occasional awkwardnesses of following the internal conflicts of three dissatisfied individuals for whom life is a constant, sometimes tedious struggle.

Liz Rosenberg (review date 20 March 1994)

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SOURCE: "Novelist Valerie Sayers's Feel for Life's Actual Daily Chaos," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 20, 1994, p. 6.

[In the following review, Rosenberg praises Sayers's ability to capture life "in all its messy glory."]

To say that Valerie Sayers is a natural-born writer wildly underestimates the facts. She has published four novels in the past seven years, all of them set in the fictional town of Due East, modeled on Sayers's own hometown, Beaufort, S. C.:

The road was dark with moss: above him the old oaks formed an arch to welcome him home, and in the first light the birds were dark, too, and raucous. Men passed in pickup trucks, their gun racks heavy….

She has carved out for herself a corner of the South as clearly delineated as Faulkner's famous Yoknapatawpha County, a sense of the importance and holiness of place that calls to mind Eudora Welty's writing on the subject. And her new novel, The Distance Between Us, describes a geography both literal—Due East, New Orleans, Brooklyn, Ireland—and metaphorical.

Sayers has written repeatedly not only about the same place but often the same characters, seen now from one angle, now another. In her third novel, Who Do You Love, the action focused on a young woman named Kate Rooney. Now, in The Distance Between Us, Kate's best girlhood buddy, the skinny, stubborn Franny Starkey, takes center stage, while Kate plays a relatively minor role.

There is a kinship among Sayers's best female characters: They are tough, fiery, given to self-destruction and self-redemption, throwing themselves into crises with a vigor so pure it's nearly spiritual. Franny's first crisis is her first "grand passion" with a wealthy fellow Due Easter named Steward Morehouse.

Steward is as bedimmed as Franny is alive, as restrained as she is impulsive—in short, the "grand passion," such as it is, is a disaster. Franny can't be good, try as she might, and her "badness" is the germ of the novel, driving her to marry a charming, hard-drinking, working-class Irishman named Michael Burke, driving Steward Morehouse to despair and Franny herself from one precipice to the next.

Plot is not Sayers's great strength, and looked at in a certain light, nothing much happens in The Distance Between Us. It resembles history as someone once defined it: "one damned thing after another." The whole novel has a helter-skelter effect.

But apparently it is life's sloppiness that interests Sayers—the marriages, affairs, children, jobs—and not its meaning. She does not ask large questions, and therefore her characters don't loom large.

But Sayers has a feel for the tumult of daily life, and her particular brand of realism—slightly wild, slightly distorted—can be enormously gripping. Few novelists can create a world as absorbing as that of Due East:

The Starkeys rode Hurricane Gracie out in Pat Starkey's junior high, where the gym roof collapsed and Doris made her children say all fifteen verses of the rosary, Joyful, then Sorrowful, then Glorious. They drove back through town that night past houses peeled open, one family's complete set of Tupperware still piled on the kitchen counter.

And few can create heroines as lively as Franny Starkey, seen first as a child through the already bitter love of little Steward Morehouse's eyes:

Her nose was always sunburned, but the rest of her skin was as white as his. Her black eyebrows could have been drawn on with a big smooth Magic Marker. She always had on summer clown suits that billowed out around her fanny.

Sayers does make some genuine mistakes in The Distance Between Us. Franny's husband, the usually drunk or drugged-out Michael Burke, is nearly too unlikeable to bear for these 500-plus pages. His awful screenplay, much of it very bad writing about the IRA, is reproduced in full for more than 100 pages.

There are writers one reads for wisdom, and writers, like Sayers, to whom one turns for something more like a recreation of life's actual chaos. It is not what she knows that makes her work compelling but what she vividly sees and hears—the South seen at night from a train window, "only watery flashes in the night, only the shadows of furrows and rows, a neat geometric memory of tobacco and corn and mustard and collards"; the scraps of a lover's pleas, "and in between the speeding cars he was saying: 'You … ever … with … so … you can't … anymore.'"

The best moments in The Distance Between Us are scenes like these, with their sense of life in all its messy glory.

Michael J. Farrell (essay date 27 May 1994)

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SOURCE: "Sayers's Folks Stagger toward Redemption," in National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 30, No. 30, May 27. 1994, p. 17.

[In the following review, Farrell examines elements of Catholicism in Sayers's novels.]

If you are one of seven kids, you have to be resourceful to stand out. If you're from the uptight town of Due East, you can stand out by being the school slut. If you are also a Catholic, it takes creativity to be good at the same time. If, furthermore, you plan to be a painter in Paris and you wear your father's ties because it is 1965 and they are doing it in London—if so, you presumably would want to leave town at the first opportunity.

No harm to the Jesuits, but you wouldn't want to go to the Jesuit University of America, even if it existed.

It does exist in Valerie Sayers's fourth novel, The Distance Between Us and that's where Franny Starkey goes.

"You'd better say you a rosary the first night and every night after or you'll never remember where you came from," her mother tells Franny as she boards the bus for JUA. Instead, Franny finds solace in reciting a litany of the Due East swains loved and left in her wake: "Tony Rivers. Beanie Boatright, just once. Gordy Nichols, De Vrau Frank, Bill Frank, Johnny Bewley, Amen."

And up ahead at the Jesuit University of America, Michael Burke lies in wait, with a devilish halo of red hair, a really loud Irish lad from Brooklyn whom no mother in her right mind would want her daughter messing with.

But messing is precisely what Franny is soon doing with Burke, amid amazing ropes of talk and unpredictable goings-on.

"Michael came out of the Safeway looking like a circus clown, a dozen cans of tuna fish in his pockets and a sirloin steak tucked in the back of his jeans, the scarlet blood running down the backs of his legs." He's just "liberating stuff," he tells Franny. For practice. For the upcoming revolution. Half a block away, he donates the purloined groceries to a startled old woman. Michael Burke's option for the poor. Son of Playboy of the Western World, "the sheer variety of drugs he consumed was appalling, even to her. You couldn't possibly ingest as many drugs as he did and be celibate as long as he claimed."

But no longer. And then, after a frisky afternoon in the sack, when Franny proposes returning to her own chaster bed, Michael reminds her. "Joe and Simon are cooking for us tonight. They're all psyched."

Joe and Simon are circa-1970s Jesuits, good guys sort of letting it all, or most of it, hang out around campus, whom Michael visits every Friday night "for poker or politics." But tonight was special. "He was taking the girlfriend home to meet the priests."

"What's the spiritual catch?" she asks.

"Fran, they're Jesuits, which means they're crafty…."

Home to Notre Dame

For anyone interested in exploring the quixotic relationship between Catholicism, Catholic universities, art and creativity, Valerie Sayers is a most appropriate place to start. Since last fall she has been director of the creative writing department at Notre Dame University. She is a native of Beaufort, S. C. (the Due East that is home for all her four novels), married to filmmaker Christian Jara, and the mother of two sons. Notre Dame seems the Byzantium toward which she has long been sailing: "My own work is concerned, among other things, with what it means to be a Catholic, what belonging to the institutional church means as well as what religious faith means. Those are important questions for me. Notre Dame is a kind of coming home: a place where the questions my own work raises will be taken for granted."

While Notre Dame's reputation for creative writing does not yet match its renown for either theology or football. Sayers insists that "everyone wants to write fiction"; even business students, she adds with wonder. Asked what she tells young hopefuls for motivation and inspiration, she explains to NCR on the phone. "I don't tell them what to do. I let them cut loose with whatever intrigues them at the moment … and ideas seem to explode from them."

This reticence to pontificate is a hint to look at her work to find out who Sayers is.

The Distance Between Us will be a major nostalgia trip for people of a certain age, veterans of the tumultuous days when the '60s peaked, and hedonism and idealism held for one more moment before breaking like a spent wave on the shore of the less exotic '70s. Burke is a writer (a high percentage of Sayers's characters are artists, screenwriters and kindred creators) working on unbegun masterpieces as he downs great quantities of booze and drugs. But the Jesuits, crafty or hopeful, insist on seeing a silk purse in this rambunctious sow's ear. They con him into doing street theater at a big demonstration in New York. Afterward, Michael drags Franny home to Brooklyn, where the Burkes and their kin are plentiful as rabbits and noisy as Babel.

"We're a strange tribe," Michael explains. "Breeding like that. I think it's out of panic." There is continuous, surreptitious talk about the Irish Republican Army and gunrunning.

Franny, who is supposed to be studying painting, soon gets pregnant instead. Panic of a different hue. She loses the baby. They get married. If it all made sense, how could it be 1971?

Sayers, who, unlike Franny, was, she insists, a good little girl, went off at 17 to Fordham University. While the novel is not autobiographical ("I never try to portray anybody I know. The interesting thing is that people see themselves in the most peculiar characters"), she concedes that life sometimes did imitate the art that would come later. Some Jesuits, for example, were indeed "experimenting with the kinds of things that everybody else in the wider culture was experimenting with." But she expresses minor consternation that a Publishers Weekly profile attributed to her the unlikely scenario that the Jesuits were running guns for the IRA: "On the contrary, they were always thinking of these wacky, creative, nonviolent solutions that didn't have a prayer."

The Fighting Irish

But gunrunning there is. In what must be a first in the history of the world, an entire screenplay is incorporated within the framework of the novel. In this helter-skelter script (Irish film noir), Michael and Franny find themselves on an Irish honeymoon, which takes them to the legendary Puck Fair in Killorglin, Kerry, a pagan festival at which a goat is crowned king amid monumental drinking. But some cagey characters in what they themselves choose to call the fight for Irish freedom stay sober long enough to con the "Yanks" in several directions.

While Michael makes a run for the border with weapons of war destined for Belfast, he loses Franny, who, not knowing the entire score, indeed scarcely any of the score, allows herself an early act of unfaithfulness to her new and by now endangered husband.

This, although it eventually turns scary, will probably be seen by many as a lighthearted paean to Irishness by a writer part of whose ancestry came from the real Killorglin.

As the Kerry bombs are being made, the woman of the house embarks on a lethal tirade when she finds herself under the same roof as a fistful of condoms. "It's not the bomb she objects to," says the bomb man. "It's using birth control to make the bomb."

This is not In the Name of the Father. But considering the author's current whereabouts, a more apt title for it than Gunrunners might have been The Fighting Irish.

Virgin Birth in Due East

"I'm interested in pursuing people in trouble; I'm not just interested in looking at perky, well-adjusted people," Sayers told NCR. In her first novel, Due East, spunky 16-year-old heroine Mary Faith is in real trouble from page one. Her mother dead, she lives alone with her decent but distracted father. She's pregnant and keeps waiting for her father to notice, which he never does, until eventually she imagines that "somehow I'd get through nine months and a delivery, and one night he'd say, 'How did that baby get to the supper table?'"

Eventually she has to tell him. It will be a virgin birth, she explains. Her father is understandably skeptical. He has already told his friends that Mary Faith is a bit crazy anyway. She gets convoluted consolation from this: It should make the virgin birth story easier to swallow.

Her father suggests an abortion, but Mary Faith won't hear of it. Her father drives off into the night, leaving Mary Faith disconsolate. She is imbued with a rich imaginative life. Though a Baptist herself, if only nominally, and "even if I didn't believe in God, I was always fond of Mary, and I always thought the idea of a virgin birth was something fine. Fine and wicked, too, the way it made it seem as if Jesus Christ was too good for the love of a man and a woman."

Besides, she ponders dolefully, "how my baby was conceived was close to a virgin birth anyway." The would-be father was an eccentric, shy, guilty high school senior who carried around The Brothers Karamazov and wanted to save the world in a leftist sort of way until he took 30 Quaaludes and died after a week. "He hadn't even known I was pregnant, and I was glad he hadn't had that to be guilty over, too." She ponders whether she ought, in due time, to tell the child what happened. She decides on an evasive scenario: "I would have thought up a real good father for her, a priest who couldn't leave his church or a married man who couldn't leave his six other children."

A significant feature of Sayers's writing is its candor. If the love is lusty, she says so. She doesn't flinch from calling things by their names, does not beat around any bush. Her people's stomachs sometimes growl. They occasionally think the unthinkable or disgusting as well as the poignant or sublime.

To her students, she told NCR, "what I go on about most is honesty, pushing as deeply as you can for honesty, and that there's a connection between honesty of content and honesty of form." And later she takes this a step further: "My view of fiction has always been a moral view in the deepest sense of that word." She does not, she concedes, find this moral sensibility more finely honed within the Catholic confines of Notre Dame than in the allegedly more heathen ambience of New York where she spent the previous 20 years.

Writers frequently resent being tagged a "Catholic novelist." "I don't think I'm pinned yet as a Catholic writer," says Sayers. She considers the term "potentially limiting in the sense that 'feminist novelist' can be limiting," but concedes: "I'm a Catholic novelist in the sense that I'm a Catholic in everything I do. My religious beliefs inform my view."

The natural case and frankness with which she writes about sex and other forbidden fruit may seem at odds with an institutional church that practically hyperventilates at any mention of the flesh. This brings her back to the honesty angle. And, she adds, whenever the church tries to sweep the unmentionable under the ecclesiastical carpet, "those dust balls have a way of accumulating at the edges and being found out." Moreover, she rejects the image that all clergy match the institutional stereotype of the church, and her conversation affirms she has met many priests she holds in high esteem.

The Catholic Thing

To the suggestion that her stories might be primarily concerned with the surface manifestations of cultural Catholicism, she responds with vigor: "I think it's much deeper than that…. Franny is promiscuous. She certainly doesn't seem to be a model Catholic. And yet she has a very deep and unshakable faith. There's one little passage where she's thinking about the Eucharist and the notion that you would die if you went without it. The sacraments are so basic a part of her life that she cannot imagine life without them…. Throughout the novel she becomes more and more aware of her faith, and her husband starts to berate her, that she's trying to be a saint or something, and she has in fact decided to be some kind of saint, and that of course goes all wrong."

While the contentious issues that rack the church do not constitute themes of her novels, Sayers insists she does not duck them. Abortion, for example, becomes a real issue Mary Faith must grapple with in Due East, as must Franny in The Distance Between Us.

But above and beyond individual theological spasms there is the faith as a given, incontrovertible as the ground beneath and sky above. On the very first page of Sayers's third novel, Who Do You Love, Dolores Rooney is described, on the day, as "a Mary, not a Martha," a reference that might fly right over uninitiated heads.

And, 165 pages later, Dolores' husband, Bill, is in the confessional and wrestling with real Catholicism as he tells Fr. Sweeney that, no, he hasn't committed adultery, "it's just that my wife's pregnant and all I can think about is other women—you know, impurely." And we are treated to a rare instance of the tables turned: Bill Rooney falling over himself to admit sin, as if the validity of his lurid imaginings were a test of his masculinity, while the priest is equally adamant that Rooney hasn't committed anything worth confessing.

In Due East, secular and sacred, the intransigent world and incomprehensible church, are the ongoing horns of Mary Faith's dilemma during her pregnancy. Determined not to have an abortion, she can't think where to turn except to the Catholic church. But, being Baptist and all, she knows no Catholics and is skeptical about the local priest, Fr. Berkeley, although he has "kind, light eyes," but she fears he would soon be calling her "sweetheart" and "sugar" and asking her to address the Due East Right to Life Committee, "and his heart would break if I told him I didn't believe in God and didn't mind who else had an abortion."

Reviewers of all Sayers's books have repeatedly commented on their authenticity of voice: The words are not so much imaginative fabrications as recognizable echoes of real life, untidy and uncertain, shreds and patches scavenged in pursuit of the aforementioned honesty.

Mary Faith ruminates: "No, what I wanted was nuns, some tough cookies with a maternity center for girls who weren't praying when they said 'Jesus Christ.' The sisters would talk to me about religion, but they'd know beforehand I wasn't going to buy it, and they'd see I had good books to read and they'd make all the mothers-to-be turn out the lights at 10 o'clock."

Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons' feisty females (Ellen Foster, for example), Mary Faith is a very smart kid, otherwise she could never be expected to conceptualize or articulate the immense baggage of her little life, the hopes and heartbreaks and people dying on her.

She visits the hospital where her father is very ill. He can't hear her, but she talks on compulsively anyway: "The baby is coming and I'm just going to care for it. And you're just going to care for me. If you mean to make anything of your life, you're not going to desert me now. You hear, Daddy? You turned your back on me when she [her mother] died, and you turned your back on me when I got pregnant, but you're not going to turn your back on me and die…. I'm sick of you all dying when I need you. So don't you die, hear? Don't you die."

Life Seamy but Salvageable

Sayers's second novel, How I Got Him Back, is also set in Due East, four and a half years after Mary Faith's baby is born, a son, Jesse, to whom she now happily refers as a "holy terror." The slings and arrows and infidelities of marriage and family are dragged into the foreground.

The erosion of old dreams and promises is beautifully condensed by one of many disillusioned characters: "That night, when we collapsed in our hotel rooms, I found my rosary beads in my makeup bag. I couldn't make out why they were there—I stopped saying rosaries the day I signed my mother into the state hospital—but there they were, black beads covered with a fine mist of lavender eye shadow. So I said the sorrowful mysteries, almost in a trance, and, still not believing, asked the Blessed Virgin first to give me more patience with my children and second to stop making me feel this way about my husband and third to make me stop falling in love with big men I saw in grocery stores."

Mary Faith, meanwhile, is taking religious-instruction classes, while insisting she has no intention of ever becoming a Catholic, though here and there she seems to protest too much. A lot of people are drinking or drunks, including Fr. Berkeley. Yet people like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila drop in on the narrative all the time, while the world and the flesh are giving the devil a run for his money, and Mary Faith's new beau is being driven crazy by sexual temptations (naturally) while vaguely planning to be a monk.

"I'm interested in pursuing people in trouble," Sayers had said, and most of her people are. In The Distance Between Us, Franny marries Michael and they have three kids in four years, and that's trouble. Glorious youth, when they could combine saving the world with endless pleasure, gives way to making inane ends meet. And there's more. Complex characters are seldom without a past that comes creeping back creating havoc. In Franny's past, long before Michael, there was a rich kid, Steward, pseudo-aristocratic but quaint, who made an indelible mark. Steward turns up again just when he can do most harm. There's a triangle. It's eternal.

But so is redemption, insists Sayers: "Grace comes to your rescue in the end. I am very aware of that after the fact, but in the composition, as I approach the ending, it often seems to me that I'm approaching cataclysm and that there's no way to go but down. And it's as if I am rescued at the last moment by this impulse." She does concede that this recent novel took the more pleasant low road: "There was a certain joyfulness in indulging that sort of cinematic ending with all the strings tied up." In this case it may be too easy—redemption too neat and nifty—but Sayers creates no characters who do not, sooner or later, pay their dues. She is surprised at the number of mainline reviewers who are dismayed at what "downers" her story endings are, "but I see them as tremendously hopeful," she says. "Maybe it's only people of Irish background who can see those little glimmers of possibility as optimistic." Often, it's heavier than optimism; it's a call, and the author looking the reader in the eye with a saucy challenge. As Mary Faith waits in the hospital to have her baby, her roommate talks on: "My momma dreamed God came down and said wouldn't she please take over for him. God said he was so tired, he couldn't take being God no more. And my momma in the dream said no, God, I don't know nothing about being God. That's too scary for me. And God said please, you got to take over for me."

But Mary Faith is a tough nut to crack, telling how her own mother, too, dreamed: that Jesus wouldn't let her die. Then: "My mother died of cancer. I believe in cancer cells."

But then she throws hopelessness to the wind and goes on and has a baby and the lurid description is thoroughly earthy Sayers: The doctor "held up a cheesy blue baby turning red by degrees, head wet with goo, while the nurses wrapped a white cloth around him. He didn't look like anything, not like a person. A rat, I didn't want him. I wanted to die."

But of course she doesn't die. She goes on, like life.

Michael Parker (review date 25 February 1996)

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SOURCE: "Crazy in Manhattan," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 8, February 25, 1996, p. 7.

[In the following review, Parker praises Sayers's honest portrayal in Brain Fever of mental illness and the universal search for faith despite adversity.]

Valerie Sayers's newest novel, and her first to take place predominantly outside fictional Due East, S. C., opens with this quote from Kierkegaard: "To have faith is precisely to lose one's mind so as to win God." Faith, or the loss of it, drives Tim Rooney to renounce his financee Mary Faith Rapple just weeks before their wedding and light out for Manhattan. As the story forges northward, both protagonist and author trade familiar territory for the woolly risks of what seems another planet from Due East.

For a writer as brash and supple as Sayers, whose previous novels have shown her to be strongest in creating a world at once mysterious and credible, another planet would not seem to pose a problem. Especially if it is inhabited by people; Sayers has that species down, particularly those people who talk crazy sense while holding themselves barely above the fray. Yet while there are copious pleasures strewn along the shoulder of this road, the results of the trip are mixed.

No doubt New York City is the right place for Tim to lose his mind and find his faith. He misspent his youth as an undergraduate at Columbia, and it is in part the memory of those outlaw years, of "our mass insanity, our shared hallucinations, our concurrent demands for peace and the right to blow up the Bank of America" that incites him to leave Mary Faith and her 9-year-old son Jesse in search of his long lost wife Bernadette. Tim and Bernadette's marriage lasted only six nights, until Tim, dosed on LSD, asked to tie her up before sex. "That's all I wanted to do: get a whiff of Bernadette, a reminder of who I'd been when I married young," says Tim. But the trip becomes quickly and comically complicated. Before he even leaves South Carolina, Tim picks up a spunky hitchhiker named Angela, refugee from old-money Charleston who has also fled the altar and who has friends—rich, southern, faux-boho-with-a-loft-in-Soho friends—who don't seem to mind, or be able to recognize, a sponge.

Guilt-ridden over wretched family history and past crackups. Tim turns out to be more sieve than sponge, and several minor characters are required to plug his many leaks. Aside from Mary Faith, Jesse, Angela and the loftdwellers, there is gold-toothed, dread-locked G. B. Brights, a former student from Tim's days of academic temp work who follows him to Manhattan after seeing him withdraw 15 grand from a Due East bank and stuff it into his socks. G. B. shadows Tim as he runs around the city in search of ghosts until his cash-cushioned soles bleed like the barbwired feet of another hellbent Southerner in search of his lost faith, Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes.

The lost-and-found faith part of this story is as old as storytelling itself, but Sayers works hard to make it new. Other, less successful parts of the story focus on what's new in New York. Sayers lingers on details of Manhattan life—the pretentious furnishings of Soho lofts, downtown nightclubs filled with "black lights, drug-crazed faces"—that detract from the story of Tim's unraveling. Too often the cityscape is rendered straight on, in details that seem more in keeping with a bemused columnist than a failed philosophy professor battling life-threatening demons.

Just as Tim's take is dead-on in places, so is his voice, and the way he shapes his story. The most successful fictional portraits of breakdowns utilize style and structure; one thinks of the overripe and sibilant lyricism of Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," which suggests the dislocation of the psyche through a harrowing accretion of image. Though the details of Tim's breakdown are often vivid, the lucid manner in which they are recalled leads to questions about the seriousness of his illness. Similarly, Tim's voice, which tends toward trenchant one-liners, only intermittently sounds like a man who hits bottom when standing in the middle of Union Square dressed in black pajamas, attempting to lead the crowd in a chant of "BOSNIA BOSNIA BOSNIA" modeled on Al Pacino's "ATTICA" mantra in Dog Day Afternoon. Obviously Tim has recovered enough to tell his story with clarity and wit, yet in order to be convinced of his mania, I found myself in need of more evidence in the telling aside from the occasional run-on sentence and the few gaps in time Sayers supplies.

The most satisfying source of tension in this novel is not whether Tim will find Bernadette and recover the religion he decides he has been slowly losing all those years in "picture book" Due East, or whether he will be rescued by those he left behind. What kept me interested was not plot but psychology. I spent much of the book trying to find out what exactly was wrong with Tim Rooney, and even after Tim was safely back on his Haldol, and it was clear that his breakdown was real, I sensed he had been suffering as well from less pathological (and more common) maladies: guilt, fear of commitment, and an inability to love, which stem from a narcissism that is as much cultural as personal.

"To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological," Flannery O'Connor wrote in her famous essay on the grotesque. Sayers may have moved her characters northward, but her conception of our freakishness remains rooted in the Christ-haunted South. In Brain Fever, she is able to conceive not only the whole man but the society that forms him, and even though this tale of maladjustment is too well-adjusted in the telling, it is graced by a tenacious and generous vision.

Elizabeth Benedict (review date 17 March 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186

SOURCE: "Descent into SoHo," in New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Benedict admits to some flaws in Sayers's character development in Brain Fever but overall admires the novel's psychological depth.]

The kingdom of madness is a destination we never visit voluntarily, and such are its shifting borders and evanescent landmarks that those who make the journey are often not sure where they are headed or when they have arrived.

For Gogol's madman, the St. Petersburg insane asylum to which he is committed is Spain, he is its king and the earth is about to land on the moon. For Tim Rooney [in Brain Fever], the unwitting trip he takes while narrating Valerie Sayers's immensely rich, readable fifth novel is a reprise of an earlier descent that led to his sister's suicide, a failed search for a monastery that would welcome "a recovering madman" and a prescription for Thorazine.

At 16, with an acceptance letter from Columbia University, Tim thought himself "a young Wittgenstein." At 45, he is a failed academic with a 27-year-old fiancée, a history of breakdowns and a highly charged, deeply ambivalent relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. He lives, like most of Ms. Sayers's characters to date, in novels that include How I Got Him Back, Who Do You Love and Due East, in the once sleepy seaside South Carolina town of Due East (modeled on the author's hometown of Beaufort), a town "where even the poverty is picturesque."

In this novel Ms. Sayers plays with so many notions of sanity and insanity, and of tenderness and mercy, that this 40-day-long diary of a madman, with echoes of Christ's 40 days in the desert, is as much a case study as a lesson in faith through the eyes of an on-again, off-again Catholic and those of his jilted fiancée (an atheist, former Baptist and unwed mother). Both have appeared before in Ms. Sayers's work, as have these themes of fidelity, apostasy and salvation. Tim is attracted to Mary Faith Rapple in part because she is "the daughter of four fundamentalists, unwavering in her disbelief," while she admits to admiring the "fierceness of his religion…. If he were a Presbyterian or a Methodist, I don't believe I would have troubled myself."

Having been described at different times as schizophrenic, neurotic, manic-depressive and alcoholic, Tim is off his latest medication at the start of Brain Fever and begins losing touch with his fragile sanity on Holy Thursday. He's ignited by Mary Faith's declaration that she will join him in church on Easter Sunday. Suddenly, she wants them to marry in the church whose strictures she knows have caused him torment akin to madness: "She didn't say sexual torments, but she didn't need to."

Before long, carried off by tiny waves of paranoia and manic delusion, he decides to become a man of action instead of an unemployable philosophy professor. He abandons Mary Faith, her 11-year-old son, whom he is about to adopt, and Due East, and drives to New York City. He's got $15,000 stuffed into his socks and the cockeyed intention of settling a score with the wife who left him after six days of marriage in the early 1970's, when they were both practicing Catholics "and no one was in the church anymore, no one but us." Those few days were also part of an "hour of mass insanity," a time when "we all went crazy together" and "my hallucinations were exclusively chemical and always intended." Are you crazy if you are just keeping up with the Zeitgeist, Ms. Sayers wants us to wonder, or might madness have immutable properties, so many parts oxygen, hydrogen and carbon?

Outside Charleston, Tim picks up Angela Bliss, a young female hitchhiker—another fugitive from her own upcoming wedding—who is also bound for New York, where some rich South Carolina friends have a SoHo loft; conveniently there is an extra room for Tim, who tells them he is an actor about to audition with Sidney Lumet. From Spring Street he sets off every morning to Washington Square Park to look for his former wife, now an esteemed professor at N.Y.U., and to discover that some of his paranoia has nothing to do with brain fever; a former student, an African-American called G. B. Brights, spotted him in South Carolina on his own drive north and takes a sycophant's interest in him, inviting him to meet his aunt in Brooklyn. These two households become the antipodes of Tim's increasingly unstable universe, as he bounces from one to the other in search of solace, safety and sometimes sex.

In the meantime, aging Father Berkeley in Due East, another fixture in Ms. Sayers's earlier books, tries to corral Mary Faith into setting off to find Tim, whereabouts unknown, though she is smarting mightily from having been left, very nearly, at the altar. "He hasn't left you," he implores her. "He's left his senses."

This chapter, one of eight narrated by Mary Faith, is the most moving in the novel. It is Ms. Sayers at her very best: Mary Faith, the wounded lover, atheist and Hester Prynne of Due East, being pressed into service and self-sacrifice by a fragile old priest who smells of "mothballs and nicotine" and from whom she expects religious platitudes—"But God will give you strength or Let us call on Him for courage"—but who offers instead his almost steady hand on her head as she weeps.

"I was weeping," she tells us, "over priests sitting there on your father's old lounger and asking you to believe that this really is a woman's lot: to nurse men and to wait on them, to send them off to their crazy adventures and then, when they've made it too dangerous for themselves, to go fetch them and forgive them and be steady and faithful."

Mary Faith's occasional and very same "Reports" are a wonderful counterpoint to Tim's often manic narratives. But what also makes hers so compelling is that they are tightly focused on the mission she undertakes with Father Berkeley. By contrast, Tim's entries, especially once he gets to New York, tend to be busy and hyperactive, as he is, full of destinations, new characters, paranoid fantasies and what were not long ago delusions of grandeur about bringing peace to Bosnia. In a way she could not have intended when she wrote the novel, Ms. Sayers has managed to suggest that madness can be a chemical imbalance and perhaps a species of prophecy too.

The principal weakness of Brain Fever is that the assortment of characters Tim moves among for most of it—the hitchhiker, her SoHo friends and G. B. Brights—are an aimless lot, not clearly motivated by much of anything except a tendency to commiserate about their heartache and troubled histories. They are there, it seems, to give Tim a setting and a support group in which to lose his mind. But this is a small quarrel about a novel of such large ambition, compassion and psychological depth, not to mention the pleasures of Valerie Sayers's graceful prose.

Alice McDermott (review date 1 June 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994

SOURCE: "Crazed Protagonist Deranges Novel," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXIII, No. 11, June 1, 1996, pp. 20-21.

[In the following review, McDermott praises Sayers's writing style in Brain Fever but finds her portrayal of mental illness oversimplified.]

The problem at the heart of this witty, energetic fifth novel by the author of Due East and The Distance Between Us is not that its narrator, Tim Rooney, is a madman: bug-eyed geniuses giving diabolically brilliant accounts of themselves are not unknown in literature. The problem is that Tim Rooney ("middle-aged failed academic, failed musician, failed husband") is mentally ill—a far less romantic assessment, and one more likely to be associated in the contemporary reader's mind with emotional pain and ruined lives. Those associations belie the wit and energy and exuberance of Rooney's careening account, in an endearing Southern drawl, of a horrendous mental breakdown.

Tim Rooney has broken down before. Seven years ago he returned to his father's house in Due East, South Carolina—site of the author's four previous novels—to "have a crackup." "I took a whiz in the front row of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the midnight Mass. I made various claims to be the Christ child and Blaise Pascal and Bobby What's-his-name, the sympathetic one on Dallas." He has lived through "the Clozapine years, the lithium years, the Prozac years" and, as the novel begins, has "reentered sanity." He plans to marry Mary Faith Rapple, the lovely young girl next door and to adopt her eleven-year-old son, Jesse, whom he adores.

But then Mary Faith arrives at his house on Holy Thursday evening in a new Easter outfit and asks that he bring her to church Easter morning. She is an atheist. He is, if not a good Catholic, a tenacious one. Suddenly, the shadow of his illness descends: the hallucinations, the buzzing sound, the chill. Brain fever.

He calls off the wedding ("I cannot be responsible for a false conversion"), and then loses his own faith on Holy Saturday when he wakes in his sister Dottie's bed—Dottie, the youngest of the Rooney offspring, who drowned herself at twenty-one. On Easter Monday morning, he stuffs $15,000 into his socks and heads for New York City. "With a new clarity, sharper even than the Drixoral variety," he knows he must find Bernadette, his wife from a six-day marriage that ended twenty years ago.

It is not surprising that religion should be a catalyst for Rooney's breakdown. His father was a musician prone to violence, but his mother was an activist Catholic. "She lined her children up at the kitchen table to write appeals to her congressman for civil rights and human rights and poverty rights and the right to be as right about the moral issues of the day as she always happened to be." Rooney himself believed a statue of the Blessed Mother smiled at him as a child.

Leaving Due East, Rooney is followed by a black man in a black truck—a guardian angel? In Charleston he picks up Angela Bliss, a beautiful hitchhiker running away from her own wedding. Angela is remarkably nonplussed by Rooney, even as he nearly drowns them both, even as he grows more and more paranoid about being followed. When they reach New York, she brings him, blacked-out and raving, to a loft in Soho owned by two more Southerners, Velma and Fred. In the morning, Rooney explains away his deranged behavior by telling them he is an actor testing a role, and Velma and Fred, in what is either incredible naiveté or unsurpassed Southern hospitality, invite him to stay on.

In the course of his forty-day descent into insanity, Rooney has bouts of clarity, bouts of memory, bouts of joy and panic and lust and regret. Sayers is remarkably skillful in seamlessly moving him back and forth, from one state to the other, in delineating his transformation from charming eccentric—he reminds everyone of Kramer from Seinfeld—to deranged street creature or, as he would have it, outlaw.

Rooney soon discovers that his guardian angel is G. B. Bright, his former student, and that Bright has been asked by Father Berkeley, Rooney's pastor in Due East, to keep an eye on him. G. B. does more than that, he rescues Rooney from the street, drinks with him, feeds him as he deteriorates, bathes and changes him when he becomes incontinent, even, with a wisdom that mysteriously eludes all the other characters, attempts to get him to a doctor.

Meanwhile, back in Due East, Father Berkeley has enlisted Mary Faith in a quest to rescue Rooney, telling her, "You have the chance to make a choice now. You can chose not to take on the nursing of a man who will have these … incidents all his life." She and Jesse head for New York with the old priest, who is certain that on the fortieth day of his madness, Rooney will take his own life.

Instead, there is a reunion. Having found Bernadette, Rooney has moved on to confront larger reasons for guilt: his sister's suicide, his mother's loss of faith, Bosnia. Ensconced in Washington Square Park, clothes in tatters, feet bleeding, feverish, he engages the crowds in a mad chant: Bosnia Bosnia—"so many souls to save,"—and that's where Mary Faith and Jesse find him.

As in her previous novels, Sayers's voice is so engaging, so precise and funny and strong, that it is unfortunate here to find her subject undermining it. It is not that the author lacks sympathy for her character's situation—Mary Faith acknowledges and embodies the pain Rooney's illness can cause—or that her story needs more pathos, more seriousness. It is rather that she, like Angela and Velma, seems slow to recognize that this loquacious Southern eccentric is in the throes of a serious illness, and that our understanding of mental illness, like our knowledge of tuberculosis and cancer, has changed forever its usefulness as a literary device.

Valerie Miner (review date 6 July 1997)

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SOURCE: "Faith, Hope and Crisis," in Chicago Tribune Books, July 6, 1997, Sec. 14, p. 2.

[In the following review, Miner lauds Brain Fever as "rewarding for that large population of us who have been both Catholic and crazy."]

Valerie Sayers's fifth book, Brain Fever, is a brilliantly agile road novel whose characters careen from small-town South Carolina to the wilderness of New York City. This witty, picaresque story is also a skillful, philosophical allegory about the lines between faith and madness.

Brain Fever opens on Holy Thursday as Tim Rooney, 45-year-old adjunct philosophy professor, medicated schizophrenic and practicing Catholic, is confronting a crisis of faith:

See here: I was never one who had to make a leap of faith—I sucked it in, with my mother's milk. When I was a boy I built shrines to Mary and never doubted that she smelled every wildflower I picked her and would shield me from the taunts of children who found flower picking unseemly…. I believed all through adolescence, all through the first sordid pokings of desire. I believed all through my secular philosophy studies, all through those loose days of the sixties, when we believers hooted at the Church's hilarious sexual pronouncements and thought the hierarchy had been invented for our amusement…. I was an anarchist Catholic junkie, O! I was an iconoclast pro religion in an age of disbelief. I believed as I went mad…. I still believed when I reentered sanity….

By the day after Easter, Tim has decided not only to abandon his church, but to dump his beloved fiancé, Mary Faith, and her young son, Jesse. He rejects Catholicism; Due East, S. C.; all family and friends. That fateful Monday, Tim gets up, shines his shoes, packs his bag, withdraws $15,000 from the bank, stuffs the bills into his socks, then drives slowly toward New York, scene of his student success at Columbia University and of happy—if conveniently reconstructed—memories.

Eccentric but credible characterization is the key to Sayers's success. Tim's manic, first-person narrative is rendered in the utterly genuine and sympathetic voice of a middle-age, failed academic with a generous heart who is losing his grip (once again) on sanity, perhaps on his very life. While Sayers conveys the pain Tim's dislocation, his story is oddly cheerful. Tim's messianic delusions—a cross between Don Quixote and Jesus Christ—are tempered with a wry consciousness about his often-ludicrous self-presentation. The story stays afloat on Tim's humor, intelligence and reckless optimism.

Driving north through Charleston, Tim spies an angel in the dark. The nocturnal hitchhiker is Angela Bliss, who is running away from an elaborate Southern wedding and the staid married life that will follow. Of course, she is heading to New York City. Meanwhile, back in Due East Mary Faith is beside herself with bitter worry. Father Berkeley. Tim's family priest, forms a search party with Mary Faith and Jesse. Through a series of reminiscences and flashbacks, readers learn the madcap and tragic history of the Rooney clan and, by extension, the quirky cultural lore of Due East.

Tim is one of five children of a radical Catholic activist mother with a conscience the size of the Atlantic Ocean. His father is violent and financially inept. One of his sisters commits suicide. Always troubled by mental illness, Tim's life has alternated between misadventures and pharmacological remedies. "[T]hat was my job, losing my mind. My mother couldn't go to a secular school, so I went. My mother couldn't love my father, so I did, when I could. My mother couldn't go crazy, so … They designate one of us in every family. I was the sacrificial son."

While Tim drives north with the young, lusty Angela, Mary Faith, Jesse and Father Berkeley form a very different kind of road troupe. Their journey transforms each of the bickering Samaritans. Particularly moving is Mary Faith's realization of why she loves the mad philosopher, and Jesse's progress from anxiety to anger to regained affection for Tim. Father Berkeley is convinced that in true Christian metaphor, Tim has subjected himself to exile in the wilderness (the uncivilized New York) and that they must find him within the proverbial 40 days or disaster will ensue.

Sayers humorously exposes the parochialisms and idiosyncrasies of both Due East and New York. Due East is a superficially cordial village, a town where Mary Faith lives her whole life next door to the Rooneys without feeling free to greet Tim's sister in the back yard. The New York scenes tellingly juxtapose surreal and stereotype: Tim's car is stolen the first night; he cowers from a bat flying around his subway compartment; he grooves at a cross-gender bar called Intergalactica; he gives away all his money to people sleeping in a park.

In some ways, Brain Fever is a wildly utopian novel, for Tim narrowly escapes through one net of grace to another. So nimbly does he evade death and assault that you begin to wonder if there is something holy about his innocence. Women always come to Tim's rescue: Angela finds him a New York sanctuary; he is nursed by a rich, white, Southern transplant in a grand SoHo loft; he's provided temporary haven by a tough-minded black school-teacher in a modest Brooklyn apartment. And, of course, there is Mary Faith, racing across the country to save him. The most engaging member of Tim's supporting cast is G. B. Brights, a young black man with dreadlocks and a worried face. G. B., a former student of Tim's from South Carolina whom he has forgotten about, just happens to be in New York, and he appears on the brink of several Rooney disasters to act as Tim's guardian angel.

One of Sayers's virtuoso moments is the scene in which a filthy, ragged, pajama-clad Tim lectures a tough crowd in Washington Square. What begins as a passionate homily about relieving Bosnian suffering gets twisted in Tim's mind as he invokes the spirits of actors Al Pacino and Florence Henderson. His listeners are drawn into rapt solidarity until his cock-eyed crusade is interrupted by the intercession of yet another set of angels:

"BOSNIA!" I would have gone on, I would have continued, I would have chanted FREE TIBET! and MOZAMBIQUE! and TIANANMEN SQUARE! So many souls to save.

The finish line of this geocultural romp is provocatively left undrawn—relegating Tim's romantic and professional future to readers' imaginations. The connections between his childhood apparition of the Virgin Mary and his more recent hallucinations about Florence Henderson remain tantalizingly opaque. In the end, faith—all kinds of faith (in humanity, in love, in God, in New York, in Due East)—saves the day, and Tim comes to understand that despair is the only state from which one can't be redeemed. Brain Fever is a novel with wide appeal and is particularly rewarding for that large population of us who have been both Catholic and crazy in our doubting lives.

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