Years ago, when my four children were young, I wrote half a novel about a selfish, unintelligent guy named Bill who had a bad marriage and four children who were becoming aware that their father was a loser. Because Bill needed money, yet was unemployed and lacked any salable skills, he decided to go on a crime spree, ripping off IHOP restaurants at slingshot-point while dressed as Santa Claus. In the last chapter of the first half, in the heart of winter, teenage kids shouted names at him as they pegged him with loose pennies and nickels from their pockets. Rather than protect himself, our hero lay on his back trying to retrieve the runaway coins from under the grease dumpster. I couldn’t finish the novel because, search my mind as I may, I could find no redemption for my hero. Since he never had anything, he couldn’t regain it. And since neither he nor I had any idea what he might be looking for, he couldn’t very well find it.
It wasn’t my only attempt at fiction. There were other half-finished novels, all of my heroes following the same spiral path downward. During my spasmodic attempts at writing, in those early Iowa days, I did bring in money for my family by working in the trades, and I did love my family the best way I knew how, and I had friends who were important to me, and I played golf and softball and listened to baseball on the radio and occasionally treated myself to breakfast at the IHOP, and I was happy from time to time. But my moments of happiness, when I was actually playing golf, for example, were always surrounded by my awareness that the good parts didn’t last. That was the nature of the good parts. It was the bad parts, consisting of either waiting for the good parts or regretting that the good parts were over, that comprised, I believed, the more abiding truth. I dreaded the good parts even when they were upon me, like spring after winter, because I knew them to be false. There would be lilacs one week and then they'd be gone and the brutal summer would press its white skies down upon us again, like The Truth. I had this idea of my life forging the original path for my fictional characters, circling the drain, and although I should have been happy with my life, blessed as I was with everything I could have dreamed of when I was a kid lying on my parent’s orange shag rug listening to the Herb Alpert album, I was miserable, forever waiting and regretting and then waiting again. I imagined there might be some way I could work against this continuous, inexorable Coriolis effect of misery. I thought there must be an answer of some kind that would solve the equation for my irredeemable character.
Professions of religious faith make me uncomfortable. If someone needs to invoke the name of The Lord after winning a golf tournament or an Oscar, I tend to change the channel. A Mariano Rivera point to the heavens, on the other hand, never bothered me. And I’m often moved when, during an injury time-out on the football field, a circle of grown men kneel to pray. So, how to explain my reticence when it comes to writing about the changes in my religious belief that has occurred over the past ten or fifteen years? Maybe it’s because religious fervor often goes hand-in-hand with bigotry and riots and murder and war. But the same can be said, I suppose, for many kinds of fervor. Maybe it's because so many religious leaders seem to be know-it-all, closed-minded, hypocritical assholes. I don't know. Maybe that's why. I guess I've never had what could be defined as religious "fervor." But I wonder if there can exist in a person a strong belief in a certain thing and, at the same time, a complete acceptance of all other beliefs? I hope these things can exist in me, although I can't say I've come that far yet. I do maintain many of the characteristics of my old anti-hero, Bill, but my story is different now. My struggle to accept the existence of a loving and merciful God has been the central narrative of my adult life. Still, I haven’t been able to approach it on the page without trying to sidestep it with sarcasm or irony. It’s a special kind of coward who receives something like forgiveness and redemption and refuses to acknowledge it for fear of how he might appear to his friends.
And so, I have to say I admire Matthew McConaughey for his acceptance speech last Sunday. It wasn’t easy for me to listen to, but it was important for me to hear.