Book review: American Saint by Sean Gandert

(cover image courtesy 47North, Seattle)

Faith is a curiously complicated thing.

On one very obvious level, it’s relatively straightforward – you believe something, act on it and it becomes a central focal point of your life, driving what you do and why.

However, dig a little deeper and the issue of faith is a fiendishly complicated one, even with the same religion or school of belief, with opinions on what constitutes good and laudable faith as divergent as the multiplicity of adherents it attracts.

This become brilliantly clear in Sean Gandert’s American Saint, a novel which explores, from a variety of viewpoints, the “truth” of one man’s spiritual journey and the way that impacts on everyone around him from his mother to one time fellow students of ministry to parishioners drawn into his well-meaning but often undependably chaotic life.

Related as a series of first person recollections to an unseen and often unknown interviewer, each chapter focuses on one person’s recollection of events at a particular point in the life of Gabriel Romero, a man who grows up in a poor neighbourhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico where options are few and faith is basic and grounded without too many adventurous bells and whistles.

If he has been anyone else, Gabriel might have simply accepted his lot in life, quietly attended Catholic Mas like his mother and his grandmother who as well as woman of firm faith, is also a healer (but not Gabriel counsels at one point a witch) but he is anything but ordinary and possessed of a vital, fervent faith that does not take easy answers as sufficient responses to his deep and probing questions, and which propels him ever onward to be quite, unmissably extraordinary.

“But then, after Mass one morning, toward the end of the fall semester, Father Anthony asked if we had considered the priesthood as a possible vocation. To be honest, I had already put a little bit of thought into it — not a lot, but the idea has been lingering in the back of my mind. Gabriel, on the other hand, looked completely stunned.” (P. 55)

But, American Saint asks in ways that are very personal and yet loaded with wider, substantial implications, just how is he extraordinary?

Is he the most pure distillation of truth, lifechanging faith as his faithful admin assistant Anna Fishel or his assistant pastor at the church he founds, Manuel Quintana believe or an heretical abomination as his fiercest critic, Father Patrick Conklin thunders relentlessly is the case to anyone who will listen?

Is Gabriel simply a complicated man whose faith seems reasonably normal if exaggeratedly intense and whose outworkings, while far more noticeable and near-mystical – he becomes known as a healer, his works either miraculous or charlatan-esque depending on your viewpoint – are just the result of a vibrant, seeking set of dearly-held, quite Biblical beliefs?

Certainly that’s what Father Michael Carter, his friend and onetime Jesuit teacher belives, although his point of view is complicated and stymied by Gabriel’s mercurial approach to life and his almost-maddening unpredictability which subverts any attempts to assess him and his faith as you might someone of more precise and mainstream a belief?

Or perhaps, ponders his onetime boyfriend Joshua Whitehurst, who never really falls out of love with him, Gabriel is just a man whose faith is a cover for something else entirely, a way of coping with a life which doesn’t fit any mold and which constantly defies rational explanation?

Sean Gandert (image courtesy Audible)

Whatever he is, one thing is certain – no one person has a lock on who Gabriel is or what his faith is really like; indeed, it seems at times neither does the man himself, though he does know he wants a faith and a life less ordinary and is prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

However, unlike FBi Agent Adriana Cooke who sees him as a renegade, would-be terrorist, Gabriel comes across as an idiosyncratic oddity whose faith is genuine if its expression veers well beyond what is commonly considered to be unorthodox.

In American Saint, Sean Gandert has given us a nuanced study of the role faith plays in peoples’ lives from a number of highly-compelling angles with the people who know and relate to Gabriel providing a distillation of the various ways people approach faith in general.

We have, for instance, those like Conklin for whom faith is inviolable and immutable, an unchanging set of truths that pays no heed to changing social mores or habits, and which remains the same now as it has been since time immemorial.

This type of faith prosecutes its defense of the truth – you could well argue that if the tenets of the faith are so robust and self-evident then there should be no need to defend them with such searing vigour – without regard for humanity or the inclusion of divergent views, almost callous in its regard, or lack thereof, of the nuances of a person’s life.

“‘You don’t know Christians like I do. You can tell them to kill in God’s name, and they won’t think twice. But talk about men having sex with men, and that’s it. That’s the end. I have to preach about love every week, every day, because that’s what’s hard for these people. Hating is easy. It’s too easy. But you have to fight for love every step of the way.” (P. 221)

It stands in marked contrast to more accepting interpretations of faith such as those shared by Fishel or Walker or the more hands-off satellite relationship with faith that Whitehurst possesses.

Gandert has captured the multiplicity of expressions of faith in an arrestingly insightful manner which suggests that a great deal more understanding of the exact circumstances of someone’s life would go a long way to creating more shared understanding of the way someone’s faith and building bridges where currently our society is rife with division.

Sadly, trying to understand someone’s else beliefs or their vantage point of faith has somehow now become synonymous with acceptance of that position, robbing society of the richness that comes from shared understanding which doesn’t presage acceptance but rather an awareness and an appreciation of divergent points of view.

While American Saint doesn’t make any particular argument in this regard, preferring to let each character’s story and insights vividly and movingly speak for themselves, it does present a case, albeit indirectly for people to try to understand others’ points of views, if they are, like Gabriel’s a profound challenge to everything they know or believe.

In the end American Saint is a book that places faith front and centre, focusing on the enigma that is Gabriel (even this to his devoted mother Isabel) but also those who fall into his orbit and who, together, present a fascinating if often troubling view of the schisms within faith-filled communities and society as a whole, and the ways that we may be able to bridge if only we can find the time, the heart and the energy.

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