By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 27, 2011
My father was not alone in expressing this sentiment, and anyone who has been sick, or who has cared for someone who is suffering, will attest that the ordinary days we often take for granted seem charged with enchantment and wonder when we reflect upon them from the vantage point of illness.
Miles Pruitt, the main character in Jon Hassler’s wonderful first novel “Staggerford” (published in 1977), has forgotten—like most of us do when we settle into comfortable routines—the simple joy of everyday life.
Consider the first line of the novel: “First hour, Miles yawned.”
Pruitt is 35 years old and teaches high school English in Staggerford, Minn., the small town in which he grew up. He lives with his former parochial school teacher, Agatha McGee, in the same room he has rented for his entire professional life. At the age of 25, Miles “lost his faith in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Day of Judgment, and Life Everlasting. He had lost the whole works. … He was not particularly pleased to have lost it, nor did he long to have it back. His faith was gone, and that was that.”
The ambivalence with which Miles Pruitt abandons his faith is emblematic of his entire outlook on life; indeed, Miles doesn’t seem to care much about anything. He looks at his students, the ageless teenagers who year after year never really change, with bemused detachment. At one point, his briefcase sags with 114 papers, all of them on the theme of “What I Wish,” that he can’t bring himself to read, let alone grade. He has become more cynical, more detached in his dealings with his colleagues, most of whom are also well past their prime. And he has never really forgotten his first love, and first and only real heartbreak; he is the current object of a schoolgirl crush; and he has a terrible toothache. In short, Miles is slouching slowly toward a sad middle age, unaware that his life is still vital, that he has purpose, that people need him.
As the novel unfolds, Miles slowly begins to realize that perhaps he is still relevant, that as Eudora Welty wrote, “a sheltered life can be a daring life as well.” And then the chain of ordinary, routine days suddenly shifts, and nothing is the same.
Hassler wrote “Staggerford” when he was living a life not too far removed from that of Miles Pruitt. He was teaching at a community college in his home state of Minnesota, not far from where he had been born, raised and educated. When he finished the novel, he said it was “the most exciting thing I’ve done since playing high school football.” The first edition of the book had a small print run of only 5,000 copies, and the publisher soon went out of business, but the book wouldn’t go away. It has rarely been out of print since the late 1970s and the audience for the novel has steadily grown, even more so since Hassler’s death in 2008.
I think the appeal of the book is simple. It captures perfectly the ordinary rhythm of small-town life, but it does so without trivializing or patronizing the people who live in that place. All of life’s small triumphs and larger tragedies are here. All of the foibles and faults and talents and wisdom of human nature are on display for us to read while sometimes wincing, sometimes weeping, and often laughing out loud. Like Agatha Christie’s village of St. Mary Mead, or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County—to cite two opposite ends of small town life in 20th century literature—Hassler’s Staggerford transcends its local, Midwestern setting to become universal.
Readers care about Miles; they care about Miss McGee, and they see bits of themselves and others they know in the cast of misfits, malcontents and dreamers who populate this small town that in its everydayness actually becomes fascinating. Hassler’s plaintive prose style and his eye for small details draw us into the lives of these people, and he achieves one of the most difficult aims of all fiction: He makes the imagined seem wholly real.
Fall is the perfect time to read this book; not only does the novel take place over a week that includes Halloween and the feast days of All Saints and All Souls, but it has as well an autumnal tone, a wistful sense of loss and longing coupled with the simplicity and anticipation that characterize change.
Yet the novel is never solemn, never precious or pretentious. In fact, it’s really very funny. Catholic readers who have lived in both the pre-conciliar and Vatican II Church will react with either delight or horror in Miss McGee’s conviction that the Dark Ages are upon us. Anyone who has ever taught will recognize the arc of Miles’ days at school. Perhaps most importantly, the novel challenges the reader to contemplate the essence of what it means to be Catholic—lapsed, pious, militant or just going along.
Hassler wrote many other books after “Staggerford,” and there is a growing resurgence of interest in his work and a reappraisal of his stature as a literary novelist. Shortly after Hassler’s death in 2008, Father Andrew Greeley described him as perhaps the “last Catholic novelist in America.” I’m not sure that’s true, but I understand what Father Greeley means. Hassler is a Catholic novelist in the sense that his fiction strives to reveal the fundamental mystery that underlies our short lives. And all those lives, regardless of how they unfold from day to day, are capable of being touched by grace.
Hassler reveals that truth to us in his splendid first book, and he went on to explore it throughout his later work and his life. When he was dying of progressive supranuclear palsy, a debilitating illness similar to Parkinson’s disease, Hassler chronicled the decline of his faculties. He was losing his balance; his coordination faltered; his vision began to fail. But he kept writing because, as he said, with the beauty and truth of one who has learned the value inherent in every day, “despite my afflictions, I’m still able to think.”
The late Catholic novelist Jon Hassler, author of “Staggerford,” graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1955 and was writer in residence there from 1980 until his retirement in 1997.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.