ON A COLD MAINE
NIGHT, a 35-year-old news producer sits alone in his quiet
apartment reading a book his sister has recommended. Suddenly,
stunned by the book's unanticipated climax, he shouts, "No!
No!" Moments later he returns to the story, overwhelmed by
a sense of loss.
writer for the Department of Defense scours bookstore shelves,
searching out the perfect gift for a friend's upcoming birthday.
The title she seeks is set firmly in her mind. Unable to find
it, she exits the Maryland store in frustration. No other
book will do!
A parish priest
assigned to a lonely South Dakota outpost eagerly anticipates
an upcoming day off. It finally arrives. He drives 85 miles
one way to the closest public library and picks up another
novel by his new favorite author. In the anonymity of the
small city, he kicks up his heels and spends the afternoon
in a coffee shop reading.
At first glance,
these three individuals appear to have little in common. They
are widely separated by geography and pursue disparate professions.
In conversation, however, the truth emerges: Each has fallen
victim to the irresistible charms and inspired prose of Minnesota
writer Jon Hassler.
Portray Catholic Culture
from St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, Hassler
is the author of nine highly regarded novels published over
the last 20 years. His work has spawned a strong following
in and around Minnesota, but small pockets of avid fans have
sprung up around the country as well, a phenomenon for which
Hassler is grateful.
overtly religious, many of Hassler's finely crafted novels
portray Roman Catholic culture with an evenhandedness rarely
found in more cynical modern writing. By his own admission,
however, Hassler didn't start out trying to be a Catholic
writer. "It surprised me how much Church there is in my books....It's
with me, I guess."
observed both Catholic culture and the world of academia,
another important backdrop for his stories. He attended a
parochial school in Staples, Minnesota, and was a student
at St. John's University. He returned to St. John's and became
a tenured faculty member, holding the titles of professor
of English, writer-in-residence and regent's professor.
ago Hassler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. On the
January morning we speak, he is now far removed from Minnesota's
blizzards and subzero temperatures. After 42 years of teaching,
he now spends the winter months basking in Florida sunshine
and enjoying ocean breezes. He maintains that he doesn't miss
teaching too much, going back to St. John's only occasionally
to visit a class. His new life actually facilitates his work
as an author. "I don't have to feel torn anymore," he says.
"I can devote my full time to writing."
how he was able to manage demanding careers as a college professor
and as a successful writer, Hassler is modest. "It's a wonder
to me as I look back how I had the energy for this," he says.
"I guess it just testifies to how strong the compulsion was....I
certainly did work hard at it."
The urge to
write was so compelling, evidently, that Hassler gave up a
social life, television and newspapers in order to devote
himself completely to the task. The fruit of his labors, as
anyone who has read his work can affirm, is casts of characters
so real, dialogue so charmingly funny and atmosphere so palpable
readers find it difficult to believe they have never visited
Hassler's fictional towns or met its quirky inhabitants.
Asked if anyone
ever encouraged him to pursue a writing career, Hassler comments,
"Nobody ever recommended I write. I don't think a teacher
ever did. I wanted to write all my life, I'm sure, but I never
told anybody." In fact, while college friends submitted their
work to various publications, Hassler never even mentioned
his own interest in writing. "It was too precious a desire,"
he recalls, "but I harbored it."
not begin writing seriously until he was nearly 40 years old.
For five years, he polished his skills, submitting short stories
to literary journals. While 85 of his early submissions met
with rejection, six were accepted for publication. It was
one of those published stories that led to an agent's offer
the circumstances surrounding the publication of his first
novel, Staggerford, to good friend Joe Plutt in a 1997
interview in Lake Country Journal: "I mailed it to
Harriet Wasserman, my agent, and she didn't respond....Later
I called her up and asked her if there was any good news."
She responded, "The good news is that I believe in your writing."
From that inauspicious
beginning, Staggerford went on to sell out its first
5,000-copy printing in only six weeks and was selected as
1978's novel of the year by the Friends of American Writers.
like the many novels that followed it, appeals to readers
for many reasons. Some love Hassler's characters. Others are
drawn by his deft and comical exploration of familiar themes:
the nature of good and evil, the natural conflict between
institutional rules and the need for their compassionate enforcement,
and the descent of modern culture into what one of his most
engaging characters, Agatha McGee, calls "the new Dark Ages."
Finally, there is Hassler's peerless attention to detail.
his keen sense of observation unequivocally to one very important
person in his life: "My mother was forever pointing out things
and places to me, especially funny things, eccentric people....I
think I learned to pay attention to things through her eyes."
He was an only
child whose parents both doted on him, and they encouraged
him to read. In addition, his early childhood seems to have
been populated by a number of people whom he clearly loved
and remembers still with touching fondness.
there was his storytelling Irish grandfather who sang songs
and bragged about his days on the railroad. Hassler says his
grandfather's stories were retold with such frequency that
he grew tired of listening to them. "I'd love to hear them
again now," he declares softly, regret in his voice.
of his was a great-aunt named Elizabeth. An unmarried schoolteacher,
she went home to Minnesota each summer and spent time with
the Hassler family, teaching young Jon table manners and "things
such as that."
who left an indelible impression on him is Cousin Bunny, a
girl several years older who lived with his family for extended
periods. In one chapter of his upcoming autobiography, Hassler
relates an episode in which she figures prominently: When
Jon was four, Bunny was often charged with accompanying him
to a local movie theater for the week's feature. Unfortunately,
due to the boy's tenderhearted outbursts, they both were asked
to leave the theater on several occasions. "The first one
was Heidi," he recalls. "[I thought] Shirley Temple
was in a crystal ball. Her grandfather was looking at her...in
that crystal ball. I thought she was trapped....I wailed and
wailed.... Bunny had to take me home." Nearly 60 years later,
Hassler laughingly confides, Bunny still resents him for having
made her miss the end of that movie!
a treasured memory of his third-grade teacher in an America
interview: "I recall Sister Constance saying that, because
playing came naturally to children, we served God by playing."
Building on that liberating idea from his childhood, he believes
that he serves God through his writing, that it is, in fact,
praying, for Hassler, come from the same deep source. The
more he writes, the less energy he seems to have for prayer.
"Energy for devotion versus emotion," Hassler explains succinctly.
source, the energy Jon Hassler devotes to his craft is well
spent. His writing is popular and meaningful to Catholics
and non-Catholics alike. Although the latter sometimes complain
that they like his books "except for all those Catholics,"
many Roman Catholic readers love Hassler precisely because
of the characters whose lives so closely resemble their own.
One such personage
is Agatha McGee, the lovable pillar of morality and Roman
Catholic orthodoxy who first appears in Staggerford
and is later featured more prominently in Hassler's Green
Journey and Dear James. He suggests she represents
"that sort of inflexible, backward-looking side of me."
Agatha in Staggerford: "Like many of us, Agatha struggles
with life's paradoxes: If you let sunshine stand for the goodness
in the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness
and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something?...Does
God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's
concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is?"
another of Hassler's memorable characters, is a man who, though
married, has lived apart from his wife for over 30 years.
In Simon's Night, Shea is recently retired from college
teaching. He reflects, "...if priests were smart they would
move their confessionals and their power of absolution out
of the churches and set them up in shopping centers, for it's
there, while handing its precious money across those counters,...that
humanity seems most vulnerable...least confident...most unsteady."
Staggerford's highly lovable and unforgettable protagonist,
gently teases his landlady, Agatha McGee, when she serves
him another meatless Friday-evening meal. "I see we are being
holier than Rome again tonight," he quips. Agatha retorts,
"Being holier than Rome is no fun since they made it so easy."
These and other
of Hassler's main characters share an intriguing trait: Most
are romantically unattached adults who manage to lead lives
that are full and satisfying to them, and interesting to readers
as well. In an era when literature is replete with sexual
angst and any number of variations on the theme of seeking
romance, this is somewhat remarkable.
for a Higher Moral Ground
marriage of 25 years, which ended in an annulment, was quite
troubled. (He has since remarried.) The independence and self-reliance
he knew in his first marriage, he concedes, may have contributed
to his realistic and frequent portrayal of the single life.
A few people, mostly at autograph signings, have thanked him
for that aspect of his writing. They "come up to me to have
a book signed and say, 'I've lived alone all my life. It's
been good. And you're the only writer who seems to understand
fact, understands a lot. His characters are people we have
met in our everyday lives; their shortcomings or peculiarities
are often our own. He writes in Staggerford that "Mrs.
Stevenson was a formidable, triple-chinned woman, trussed
and stayed... altogether more human since the last faculty
dinner, when a loud belch took her by surprise."
In the same
novel he describes another character: "There was little to
love about Imogene Kite. She was all warts and adenoids...in
no hurry to find a husband....What she did, incessantly, was
look up information in the card catalog. Miles had never known
anyone with such a respect for pure knowledge...."
In clear, crisp
prose Hassler renders the ordinary extraordinarily. He crafts
human beings who, despite their failures and all manner of
adversity, still strive for a higher moral ground. In his
hands, literature uplifts and transforms, even when it deals
with less-than-savory issues.
To its credit,
even Hollywood has recognized Hassler's storytelling prowess.
Several years ago, Green Journey was adapted for television
and broadcast on NBC as The Love She Sought, starring
Angela Lansbury. More recently, Gregory Productions, a subsidiary
of the Sacred Heart League and the company responsible for
1996's acclaimed Spitfire Grill, optioned Hassler's
North of Hope.
couldn't bear to watch Lansbury in the role of Agatha McGee
until last year, for fear of having it distort his image of
Agatha, compliments the television production: "I loved it,
actually. I thought it was awfully close to the novel, except
for the ending." He adds, philosophically, "Hollywood has
to do that, I guess."
That last statement
is quintessential Jon Hasslerclear, kind and gracious, the
hallmark of a man who lives very much in the present. In that
present, he commands much respect for who he is as a person
and what he does as a writer.
How to Tell a Story
student named Nithy has spent many hours working and talking
with Hassler, who has served as his mentor and has helped
him complete a book detailing a bicycle journey across the
Americas. Nithy refers to Hassler as "a true gentleman," someone
whom he has been honored and fortunate to meet.
no less respected by those who know him only through his writing.
Several years ago, I stood in the Washington, D.C., bookstore
Politics and Prose and watched as a customer close to me reached
for North of Hope, Hassler's latest book at that time.
He caressed the volume and seemed to savor the feel of it
in his hands. With a satisfied smile, he turned to me and
said, quite unsolicited, "Now here is a man who knows how
to tell a story."
To this understated
but supreme compliment, I could only nod my heartfelt agreement.
Cormier is a free-lance writer who lives in Herndon, Virginia,
with her husband and sons. Jon Hassler is the only person
to whom she has ever written a fan letter.