Monday, May 11, 2009

Veronica Chater's "Waiting for the Apocalypse": Book Review

This memoir follows the tradition of the coming-of-age story, told in prose that duplicates the narrator's growing awareness of the need to create her own "Weltenschauung," or "world-view." The fact that she and I are only a year apart in age and that she was from a traditionalist, "true" if schismatic Catholic upbringing impelled me to read this, for my best friend's family around the mid-70s when the bulk of this story occurs was from the same background. His raising, like hers and mine, took place amidst a dreary California of downmarket tract homes and shabby strip malls.

I found the opening chapters a bit too garrulous, as we learn of the "anti-revolutionary international" opposed to Vatican II through her rather gee-whiz, overdriven style. However, as she matures, the book's tone deepens. In the travels that surround the family's desperate Portuguese diaspora, the growing divide between her dogmatic father and herself, and her own entry into the dangers of the body-- in both a sexual and an injury-prone sense-- we find her character developing.

Chater takes on her complicated life-- within her family and among their harried fellow communicants clinging to the Tridentine Latin Mass and the remnant of a pre-conciliar Church-- with gusto. She can also be nuanced, as when she encapsulates her parent's relationship. Her father expounds chapter and verse on the follies of modernism, Communism, and liberalism; her mother raises eventually ten children; in the future, her extended family will house fifteen in a tiny three-bedroom house and siblings will find themselves living in jerry-built shacks on the patio and tents.
"Mom, who 'hated politics' and never had much to say about Vatican II outside of the kitchen, suggested to Dad that he wasn't making things clear for our young minds, and Dad sighed and made a helpless gesture, and said, 'Well, there's no other way of explaining it!' and Mom shrugged, and instead of showing him how, asked, 'Who wants seconds?'" (15)
Chater later takes stock of her dad and the predicament they are in as they seek solace in a community as underground as the first catechumens in imperial Rome. They hold the Latin Mass with renegade priests in a Penney's truck garage, a bankrupt department store, their own two-car garages, and their living rooms. The last mass that the family attends in their Portuguese flight shows the author's skill at pacing a story well, and you can hear her voice on every page.

They, reduced at one point by her father's unbending principles (he parts ways with a benefactor who turns out to deny the Holocaust) to food stamps, driving in an old Rambler, with thrift-store clothes and tawdry rentals in dodgy suburbs around the Bay Area, stick to their beliefs, "in search of an aura that no longer exists." (207) While you despair at her father's refusal to compromise, you learn to admire his willpower, his determination not to take the easy way out. Chater's worked out on paper what she earlier came to accept in her heart. She treats her father fairly.

The "third secret" of Fatima unrevealed, the fear of the apocalyptic Great Chastisement, reminded me as it did her family every moment of the Cold War Catholicism, the fear of sudden annihilation, the impending doom, with which many of us were raised or at least very aware, despite the cosmetic changes of Vatican II. (By the way, an entertaining "theological thriller" by Steve Berry, "The Third Secret," was reviewed by me on Amazon in October 2005.) Like Chater, I feared the handshake all but mandated at the "kiss of Peace" introduced into the Mass; I too resented the participatory "game-show" singalongs that had replaced a dignified if remote service with a relentless series of glad-handing innovations.

The transition, for those of us who were born at the time of Vatican II, too young to remember the old Mass, but old enough to witness the consternation such reforms caused in many of our families, constitutes an overlooked chapter in Catholic culture. Chater shares it with us at last from her harrowing, put-upon, yet ultimately generous perspective. "If it weren't for Dad's weltenschaaung, everything would be different." (206) The author strives for even-handedness. She presents her father's unbending will, but also shows his forgiveness, if one hedged with more demands for fidelity to the tenets he could not abandon. I wished for more insight into how her mother dealt with a child a year on only her husband's income as a truck driver (formerly a police officer, CHP trooper, and prison guard who took the side of the Hells Angels against the hippies!). She also misspells "cholo," a mistake nobody growing up in a blue-collar California 'burb should make!

After a somewhat show-off start, the book finds in the Portugal adventure its balance, and while the arc that follows a sheltered young person who leaves their strict, dogmatic home for a life of the mind found in books and ideas may be a familiar one, Chater peoples her story with fairly-drawn characters, an understanding of the desperation that her parents shared with others horrified by what Catholicism had become, and an acceptance to accept diversity in how she parts ways with her parents. She notes at the end that out of the ten children, only one of her siblings has stayed Catholic.

I was skeptical, after every review I read on Amazon gave this five stars, but Chater's sharpened the telling of her many intriguing tales well. [I gave it a strong four to account for tonal shifts, after nine glowing but brief reviews preceded mine.] This memoir reminded me of Hugo Hamilton's Irish one, "The Speckled People." Hamilton was raised in a postwar Dublin suburb by a fanatical Irish-speaking, right-wing father who refused to let his children speak English at home; he, too, was bound by a rigidity that defied his surroundings and a wife whose own predicament thickened her dependence on her husband's defiant stance. By her entry into college, Chater follows a path long pursued by those who break away from a life of compliance. Determined to release herself from the bonds that held her back in a religion that never "took" for her, she learns the inescapable moral of her youth: "Faith cannot be force-fed. It seems to come either naturally or not at all." (325) (Posted on Amazon US 5-11-09)

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