Twenty-four stories touching on faith, God, and religion.
Atlantic Monthly editor Curtis (God, 1998) has compiled a pretty broad collection, ranging chronologically from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Kate Wheeler, but it’s heavily weighted toward work of the late-20th century, and, even in its foreign selections, stays well within the American syllabus. Thus, we find contemporary American Christians (Mary Gordon and Alice Walker) standing alongside European Muslims (Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie) and assorted Asians (Amy Tan and Yukio Mishima) with whom we are already on good terms. The most familiar selections are also the best: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” for example, describes a pious midwestern farm wife who faith is revealed on her deathbed to have been not much more than a bluff in the face of despair, while Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” is an equally depressing account of a young Puritan’s discovery of the pervasiveness of evil in an apparently pure world. Mary Gordon (“The Deacon”) offers her usual portrait of dreary Catholics who use religion to compensate for the passion missing in their lives, while John L’Heureux (“The Comedian”) creates a strange and witty account of a pregnant woman whose unborn child sings to her. Kureishi’s splendid tale of Islamic fundamentalism (“My Son the Fanatic”) is thought-provoking and timely, but Salman Rushdie (“The Prophet’s Hair”) and Gabriel García Márquez (“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”) both trip up on the tangle of their own rhetoric. The younger authors tend to focus on experiences of alien traditions, and some of these (such as Wheeler’s account in “Ringworm” of a California girl who become a Buddhist nun) work better than other (such as Rémy Rougeau’s trite story of Catholic monks who study eastern mysticism in “Cello”).
A mixed bag: Curtis hits all the representative groups, but his particular selections or omissions—where, for example are Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Peter De Vries?—are an invitation to debate.