The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast is the kind of book you’d want on your shelf, if only to display it, or to occasionally pick it up, flip through, read a story, and put it down again. Not only a physical beauty, this substantial collection is comprised of twenty-eight selected stories by John L’Heureux, who died in April 2019 at age eighty-four. A Jesuit priest for seventeen years, he left the order in 1971, married his lifelong spouse, Joan, and became an English professor at Stanford. He published over twenty books, including novels, poetry, and stories, many of which are collected in The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast, which is a life’s work in the truest sense.
Spanning the length of many decades (the earliest stories, like “A Family Affair” and “The Anatomy of Bliss,” were first published in the 1970s), The Heart varies impressively in every conceivable way—structure, tense, point of view, length, concept. Two forces, though, remain constant throughout: faith and irony. L’Heureux’s intense yet thorny religious life explains all of the priests, ex-priests, nuns, lapsed believers, and doubting atheists who occupy his pages. Even so, many (but not all) of the stories lack resolution; they are enlightening less often than they are obscuring. What does L’Heureux mean, for example, when he writes about a singing fetus that a young comedian wants, but cannot bring herself, to abort? Occasionally, a story’s structure will be self-referential, or postmodern, as in “Answered Prayers,” or “The Anatomy of Bliss,” which parodies traditional structure by beginning with “THE PROBLEM.”
“Satiric” is the word you may find floating through other reviews, though that’s not quite right. Satire has a target; irony destabilizes while the why is unclear. Irony arises naturally between characters, in off-the-cuff exchanges. While some of the dialogue can be stiffened by catchphrases like “You name it” and “I can dig it,” this is also often the place where L’Heureux does his most enjoyable work. It’s where readers can hear that wit he’s so known for. Without preamble, a section in “A Few Necessary Questions” begins:
“Are you or are you not a Jew?”
“But I’m a Catholic priest. You know that. Of course I’m not a Jew.”
“We thought you’d say that.”
“Why do you keep protesting? Do you hate the Jews?”
“No. I like them.”
“‘Some of my best friends are Jews.’ Is that what you’re saying? Why do you condescend to them? Is it a cover-up?”
“I don’t know what you want from me.”
“You are a Jew, aren’t you. You’re a Jew who thinks he’s God.”
In this scenario, one voice acts on another, reactive voice. The resulting chemistry creates a realism that is only real for its bizarre, oddly humorous quality. At the heart of the exchange (beyond the fraught question of “Who is a Jew?”) is a more general question of identity, and whether the identity that one claims is their true one. To call oneself a Catholic priest, in L’Heureux’s work, is not necessarily to be sanctified; often, it indicates the exact opposite, and true wisdom takes the guise of the profane.
L’Heureux drew comparisons to Flannery O’Connor for many reasons: both were known for their sharp, not always flattering wit, and both wrote with the purpose of revealing God’s grace in everyday life. (And both had last names with apostrophes.) But whereas O’Connor literally wrote a story called “Revelation,” L’Heureux and his work are more indirect. Reading O’Connor, you get the sense that she and her characters drive well over the speed limit, while L’Heureux is constantly swerving. Not that his work is timid. To the contrary, he delivers snappy, vital lines, as in his story “Witness,” in which a Catholic man re-connects with a Jewish atheist, Morgan, with whom he had an affair. They discuss the mysterious bruises that have appeared on Morgan’s wrists—what the man calls stigmata, the term for inexplicable wounds resembling Christ’s own.
“I see you’ve still got your stigmata,” he said. “It’s a great grace.”
“Well, I’ve earned it, don’t you think? With my clever hands.”
“Your theology is weak, Morgan. You can’t earn grace.” And as she leaned forward to caress the hair at his wrist, he added, “You can’t escape it either.”
She pulled her hand away as if she had been stung.
“I’ll escape,” she said. “You little Catholic bastard.”
She went home alone.
It reads almost like a mission statement: you can’t escape grace. Except that every word is couched in irony, the playful banter of former lovers, adulterers no less. Tougher still, the “great grace” referenced here is pain, which Morgan, not knowing its cause, perceives as an “assault.” She consults several doctors—secular healers—who are of no help in this particular case. “The stigmata is a fact,” she lectures later on, “an assault by the mystery of fact… which some call God.” Here L’Heureux fashions an O’Connor-esque paradox: it is Morgan, a woman with “no aspirations to sanctity,” who manifests the divine. Subtly, L’Heureux blends God, suffering, mystery, and fact, but the common denominator is irony, a comical umbrella under which these incompatible concepts can crowd.
But for the critical reader, the stigmata remains troubling. My stomach churns at the very idea of wounds to the wrist, and much more so at the suggestion that God would inflict them. If such an idea feels fragile, L’Heureux seems to know it, drawing attention to this issue in the stories to come.
Brutality is the crux of the “The Anatomy of Desire,” wherein a soldier’s skin is flayed: “He was raw, he was meat, and he would never be any better”; any personal interaction with this protagonist is the result of another’s obligation to him. Another story, “The Handmaid,” tells of rape, mutilation, and murder. “So that is the worst,” we are told on the first page. “Now you have nothing else to fear.” Such a line comes across as tongue-in-cheek, and chillingly so, because of course it’s untrue. The horror of violence is not assuaged by announcing it quickly. A similar tone can be found in “The Torturer’s Assistant,” a savage story about exactly what it sounds like: a man who was chosen by the military but “lacked the initiative or perhaps the imagination to become a torturer of the first rank.” Tucking his own children into bed, the torturer’s assistant reflects: “I touch their small bodies gently, gently, because I know what can be done to them.”
Life is nothing if not fragile. L’Heureux, who opted for physician-assisted suicide as a result of degenerative Parkinson’s, knew this. His fiction impels us to accept the vulnerability of the body, and his wry humor about it almost makes it worse. Even so, that beat of faith persists, if faintly, in characters wanting to believe and those who do believe. In many stories, L’Heureux imposes the supernatural and so doing, takes readers by the hand and brings them to the precipice of an ancient question, one that has haunted monotheism since its conception. “If there is a God,” Morgan asks in “Witness,” “why is he doing this to me?” L’Heureux refuses to answer directly. His characters pose many theories, most of which he subverts with a punchline. A doctor assures Morgan that her stigmata is “mysterious but not meaningful.” And when, “In the Rise and Rise of Annie Clark,” an agonized churchgoer levitates in her sleep, L’Heureux suggests that “God is simply in one of his antic moods. It is not useful to examine this kind of thing too closely… Still you have to wonder.”
In the end, theodicy is yet another thing L’Heureux parodies. More interesting to him seems to be the complexities of the human heart, with its competing desires and innate contradictions. Morgan seeks to escape pain and also to indulge it. The murdered narrator of “The Handmaid” maintains, against all evidence, that “all will be well.” Maybe, then, the fingerprints of divinity can be found in that ever-present irony: the paradoxes that suffuse L’Heureux’s wordplay.
The Heart Is a Full-Wild Beast’s title is illustrative. Fully “the heart is a full-wild beast: and maketh many wild leaps,” it is derived from a thirteenth-century rule—that is, a guide for monastic life—and reflects the human condition in the eyes of the divine. L’Heureux’s final collection implies that human lives, fictional and otherwise, are not easy equations, where character plus conflict equals revelation: we are something altogether wilder. A priest in “Answered Prayers” likens irony to sin. Riffing on Julian of Norwich, he writes that “Sin is behovely. Therefore irony is behovely.” If we envision sin as Julian did—not as specific deeds, but more like an intergenerational disease—then the heart, too, is riddled with irony. And it is also the very means by which L’Heureux’s God operates. Consider Job, which L’Heureux does. In this collection, the human heart is compared to Leviathan, “a full-wild beast,” the monstrous embodiment of chaos—whom God strokes affectionately, and puts on a leash. Together as beasts, they go out for a walk, and enjoy the weather.