Sep 25, 2015

"Eating Tacos in a Dress Shorter Than John 11:35" (Novel Review)

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

“Medea attempted an air of queenly indifference, which is difficult while eating tacos in a dress shorter than John 11:35.” Amends, Eve Tushnet

In the novel Amends, Eve Tushnet writes about people who are pathetically messed-up and tragically adrift. Her protagonists--six individuals who take part in televised alcohol rehabilitation for a reality T.V. show--are all in the process of destroying themselves. Yet this is a story of forgiveness as well as humiliation.

The author writes like a person who loves her (fundamentally flawed) characters. In the course of a story full of wordplay and biting satire, she makes her readers care about the characters, too.  Emebet is a homeless Ethiopian Christian who wishes she could die without committing the sin of suicide. Colton is a debt collector. Dylan is a dimpled, high school hockey player who has stuffed his car keys down the food disposal so that he won’t drive drunk. Medea writes plays full of angry, lesbian feminism. J. Malachi is a conservative writer who sides with principles rather than believing in them. Sharptooth claims that she is a wolf in a human body.

Few contemporary Christian writers tackle the messy realities of life, sin, and grace in fiction. So much “Christian fiction” is written at people instead of about them, which tends to lead to poor storytelling, much less to anything that could function as a form of apologetics. In contrast, Ms. Tushnet, a celibate lesbian Catholic whose first book is Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith is not afraid of the messiness of life. I was excited to read her novel.

The book is chock-full of phrases that make me love her style. A character gets “a little bit Shar Pei in the forehead,” and a TV show producer “was on set, drifting around astringently in the background like the smell of bleach.” The hockey player’s host-parents look at him with “embarrassed, punitively Minnesotan expressions.” The conservative writer “had a dilapidated body and a face like the last days of the Raj: jowly, discredited, eager for the final defeat.”  

The narrative itself is compelling. Ms. Tushnet does not veil the discreditable and sometimes even disgusting aspects of alcoholic life, but her book is free of the depressingly heaviness that pervades most novels devoted to “realism.” This is satire, and it is genuinely funny. We are shown the absurdity of everyone and everything. No one, whether Christian or agnostic, sane or crazy, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, escapes the author’s perceptive humor. The characters transcend stereotype and show themselves to be as human and unpredictable as anyone real.

Despite the author’s faith, this book lacks the “conversion scene” so common in Christian fiction. Some readers will probably be disappointed that the author does not resolve her story in a way that would demonstrate the Christian characters to be “right,” or even happier or better off than those who are not Christian. In fact, it could be argued that none of the characters are “good Christians” in the sense of having all of their theology, their lives, and their addictions in perfect order.

Yet this portrayal is realistic. Some of us Christians may look “good,” (or even, alas, think that we are pretty good), but who among us really is? Like addicts, we all engage in a daily battle with our old Adam, and like addicts, we are constantly failing to live up to our own good resolutions. We are addicted to sin. We profit more from being reminded of our true nature than from receiving a literary pat on the back. In addition, such realism is surely the only way for the book to ring true to non-Christian readers who see perfectly well that plenty of non-believers live in happiness and civic integrity while their believing neighbor kicks his dog or messes-up his life.

If this book were written by a Lutheran, would it be any different? I think that we Lutherans are deeply aware of sin. On that point, we can easily see Ms. Tushnet’s perspective. She writes with what one reviewer calls a “spirituality of humiliation,” and I think this outlook is partially compatible with the theology of the cross. The idea that a person is better able to see his true nature  in the depths of humiliation--the pit of wretchedness and failure--rings true. However, the theme of this book also suggests that as a Catholic, Ms. Tushnet does not view fallen humanity as utterly incapable of finding truth and a Higher Power. A Lutheran would argue that fallen humanity cannot find but can only be found.

Theological differences aside, what Tushnet does beautifully is two-fold. One: at the micro level, her satire disarms and allows readers on both sides of the political spectrum to ponder many small presuppositions that might otherwise go unquestioned. Because she shows Christians at their worst, the author is also able to give them the fair hearing--a chance to speak for themselves--that is so often lacking in mainstream fiction. Two: at the macro level, she raises questions about sin (although without using that term), humility, and grace (again, also without using that term). It is the kind of novel that makes the reader laugh, groan, and think.

I recommend it.


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.


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