Reviewed by Trevor C. Merrill
If one were to throw assorted works of G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Thomas Pynchon into a blender and press the button labeled “purée,” the resulting concoction might be something like the novels of Lee Oser, which combine stylistic brio, an acute sense of human fallenness, and a satirist’s rude rejection of literary decorum. True to its title, Oser’s third and latest, Oregon Confetti, is a colorful celebration of a book, rooted in a place—Portland, Oregon—the author plainly knows by heart, and bursting with vividly etched characters, gleeful administrations of poetic justice, and do-or-die professional, erotic, and spiritual combats.
The Oracles Fell Silent, Oser’s 2014 comic dive into the past and present of an aging, tormented British rocker, spun debauched pop stars, dueling real estate agents, paparazzi, imams, and academics into a Menippean whirlpool, in the center of which narrator Richard Bellman sought clarity while staving off the temptations of celebrity culture.
Oregon Confetti accompanies its hero-narrator, a womanizing, Mini Cooper-driving Portland art dealer named Devin Adams, on a similarly boisterous picaresque. This time the well-chosen target of Oser’s satire is the art world, which is portrayed as a distillation of just about everything that’s most awful about modern culture. “I used to be a purist,” Devin says, “but now I mostly sell trash.… It’s all a big scam, a confidence game.” He spends $95 to purchase “Nancy Sinatra,” a tricked-out manikin intended (so the artist’s overbearing mother says) as a “revolutionary” critique of the “capitalist system,” and then unloads the hideous object on a Deutsche Bank art buyer for $25,000. Junk is his best source of profits: its market value, unrelated to truth and beauty, depends entirely on fashion and “expert” opinion, and can be inflated to match the budget and credulity of potential buyers.
Oser’s satire is unsparing, even savage, but this is a cheerfully comedic rather than misanthropic book, even if the main character’s profit-motivated betrayal of his own high artistic standards at first lends the novel a certain cynicism. The ramifying, multi-layered plot involves, among many other elements, a kidnapped Taiwanese baby named Virgil, a wheelchair-bound cartoonist bedeviled by angry social justice warriors, and a reclusive painter whose masterful canvases go unnoticed by the world at large but manage to attract a few discerning admirers with deep pockets. In the course of wild adventures, Devin, a lapsed Catholic, faces the physical and spiritual costs of sin, and must finally decide whether to obey his one-track mind (“Actually,” he says, “it has two tracks—sex and death”) or the hard but sound teachings of the faith.
From the novel’s first pages, Devin is plunged into a maze of international intrigue—not the sort of thing likely to befall your average art dealer, perhaps, but Oser’s is a realism of choices and consequences rather than of statistical probabilities. Baby Virgil, it turns out, may be the hereditary emperor of China, which would explain why various parties, including contract killers and politicians with lucrative deals hanging in the balance, have an interest in preventing the infant’s return to Taiwan.
Where The Oracles Fell Silent tended to contemplate human nature’s darker side from without—as a rock star’s ghostwriter, Bellman, although implicated in the excess he chronicles, is as much observer as protagonist—Oregon Confetti closes the gap between its narrator and our wayward human condition. It’s mostly his own bad behavior that Devin Adams records in the novel’s chiseled, waggish,and often sparkling first-person prose. And entertaining as the action-packed, corpse-strewn kidnapping plotline may be, the book works best as a confessional tale of drunken benders, lust unbridled, and love misaligned—and finally as a conversion story.
It “would take Saint Augustine,” Devin says at one point, to “understand my erotic disorders.” He gives in willingly to temptation, first with a married next-door neighbor and later, and much more fully, with an unscrupulous and eco-conscious art vendor named Eve Labcoat. Their affair is less pleasurable hedonism than something more restlessly perverse, requiring increased dosages of kinkiness to remain interesting—sex as addiction, sex as God-substitute. Oser handles a number of erotic encounters with an unlikely but effective combination of Aristophanic humor and restrained delicacy, using the sex scenes to shed light on his hero’s foray into (as one of the chapters is titled) “godless territory.” As he exits Eve’s apartment after an all-night binge, his hangover-induced disorientation eloquently suggests his lack of spiritual and moral compass: “Directionless, I couldn’t find the elevator. So I ended up wobbling down three flights of stairs, clinging to the rail for dear life.”
Eve Labcoat (a name worth pondering) eventually lures Devin into demeaning mistreatment of Agatha, his invaluable adjunct at the gallery, a betrayal that crowns his misbehavior but also opens the way for a change of heart. Nudging him in the right direction are his mother, who hovers on the story’s margins—and on the uneasy periphery of her only son’s conscience—like some latter-day Saint Monica, and Father Low, Devin’s former professor of logic, who tracks him down in hopes of hearing his confession. In one memorable scene, the kindly priest, having dropped by the gallery, rattles the doorknob of an office where Adams (using his last name gives a sense of Oser’s drift) and Eve are engaged in a frenzied but impersonal romp. The novel boasts a number of similarly effective set pieces, including a doctor’s visit in which earthy exchanges between physician and patient hum with theological double entendre.
In a work as full of overtly religious themes and characters as this one, it’s hard to avoid reflecting on Oser’s contribution to the Catholic novel. A first step is to point out the role that literature plays in sparking Devin’s conversion. The bartender at his favorite neighborhood spot is trying to finish “the novel that would deliver him from bondage.” He vets each new draft with the patrons, who vote for their favorite continuations. A main character in the ever-evolving opus enjoys success as a Hollywood player but descends into a “vicious drug-fueled BDSM lifestyle.” Pursued by the ghost of a former client who committed suicide, he ends up stranded on a drifting Antarctic iceberg. Devin is spurred to action by this fictional scenario, in which he seems to recognize echoes of his own downward spiral: with Eve’s assistance, he has graduated from generic adultery to sex toys and sodomy, and ends up masked like a Venetian libertine, lost in a fantasyas remote from the real as the abstract art he sells.
The salutary shock administered by the novel-within-the-novel reads like an implicit statement of Oser’s poetics, which in their refusal of bourgeois sentimentality are very much in the line of an O’Connor or an Evelyn Waugh: just as the author writes to free himself, so must his work guide the reader to deliverance, less by depicting saints than by refusing to give characters easy outs in the struggle with sin and temptation, and by showing us where heedless indulgence of desire ultimately leads. The novelist-as-bartender, meanwhile, is a plausible symbol of the contemporary Catholic writer, attending to the thirsts of a small but devoted circle of regulars.
The novel form, it should be remembered, has been Catholic from the start. Its two great foundersare Rabelais and Cervantes, the one a Franciscan monk who dedicated Gargantua to “noble and illustrious drinkers,” the other a Roman Catholic who fought in the Battle of Lepanto and set multiple chapters of Don Quixote in a tavern. With his barroom poetics, Oser, it seems fair to say, has more in common with these unruly ancestors than he does with the polished but domesticated graduates of today’s writing academies. Not only does Oregon Confetti thumb its nose at the division between literary and genre fiction, its pages home to both theological disquisitions and secret agents, vernissages and gun battles, but throughout it also mounts a mocking assault on political correctness, a topic that most works of contemporary fiction simply refuse to address.
There are some drawbacks to Oser’s maverick aesthetic. He succeeds at everything he tries but perhaps tries a few too many things. As a result his plot is overstuffed with events and characters. Yet it’s hard to call this profusion an outright flaw—more like the stamp of a novel that takes delight in mixing high and low, metaphysical reveries and vulgar puns, recondite literary allusion and farcical comedy. Whether he is inventing song lyrics, pastiching Greek tragedy, or sketching the pageantry of Portland’s streets and squares, Oser shows himself to be a gifted, versatile, and often very funny writer. He excels at bringing characters to life with a few quick strokes. His dialogue is snappy without being superficial. And he possesses a special knack for word-paintings of nature and art (the novel’s back cover features one notable example). Finally, he has emotional range: scenes of love and forgiveness are as tender as his portrayals of sex and sin are grotesquely comic.
Oser’s preference for turning the Catholic story into a comedy puts him in illustrious company, yet today it also makes him something of an outlier. As Joseph Bottum suggests in a recent review of Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour, our prominent believing novelists display abundant talent and exquisite craftsmanship, but their works tend to lack the theological heft and concern for present-day reality that earned the great post-War generation of Catholic writers their reputation for moral seriousness.
Yet it is not only that these novels (think Mariette in Ecstasy, or in a Christian but not Catholic vein, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead) look back, but also that they seem intent on capturing a distinctive beauty linked to the bygone periods they recreate. They thus tend toward the lyrical rather than the comic.
And this, in the end, is why Oregon Confetti is so refreshing. It represents an edgier, rowdier brand of religious literature. It takes on today’s shoddiest secular ideologies and shows the dreariness of succumbing to them, but also the appeal of making the sacrifices necessary to leave them behind. Instead of addressing a nonbelieving audience “which puts little stock in either grace or the devil,” as Flannery O’Connor put it, Oser aims at a faithful subculture likely to share, or at the very least to sympathize with, his basic views on art, sex, and religion.
The novel began as a popular form of wise entertainment; it has evolved into high “literary fiction.” In a secular world increasingly hostile to Christianity, Oser’s brashly satirical, Catholic aesthetic is commercially risky and artistically fruitful. It has allowed him to create a comic idiom that looks back via Waugh and Chesterton to the origins of the novel. In short: Oregon Confetti makes it possible once more to ask not where the American Catholic novel has gone, but where it is headed next.
Trevor C. Merrill is the author of The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard (Bloomsbury). His essays and reviews have appeared in Education & Culture and The American Conservative, among others.