Here’s my review of Richard Rodriguez’ “Persian carpet of a book” in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
Yes, it’s a rave.
No, I’ve never met him.
Yes, I’d love to:
On rare occasion, a writer makes a reviewer’s life hard. Richard Rodriguez’s Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography has to be celebrated as one of those occasions.
The deep pleasures of such a book defy the usual capsule account. Instead you want to read sentences and whole passages aloud as I’ve been doing over cafe and dinner tables the past few weeks – “Listen to this!” You want to press “Darling” on others as a gift of friendship, judiciously picking whom to share it with lest you expose Rodriguez to pedants who can’t fathom the way his mind works.
“I did not intend to write a spiritual autobiography,” he writes in the foreword, and I’m glad to say that despite the subtitle (an editorial addition, I suspect), he hasn’t. This is something infinitely more supple – a rich tapestry, a Persian carpet of a book. True, it’s framed as an exploration of his own Catholicism post-9/11, when he realized that “Christianity, like Judaism, like Islam, is a desert religion, an oriental religion, a Semitic religion, born of sinus-clearing glottal consonants, spit, dust, blinding light,” and began to wonder how he and the “cockpit terrorists” could worship the same Abrahamic God.
But Rodriguez’s faith is light-years away from the deadening dogma of “mitered, bearded, fringed holy men.” As he investigates “the ecologies of the holy desert” – specifically the Judean desert – what he creates instead is more like an ecology of the soul. And unlike the desert, it teems with life.
St. Francis, Elvis, Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II, Cesar Chavez, Keats, William Randolph Hearst, Moses, Warhol, Herbert Hoover, Dorothy Day, Shelley – a short list of the roster of personalities jostling shoulders as they wander in and out of the virtual salon of Rodriguez’s mind, where San Francisco is “the mystical, witty, sourdough city,” Las Vegas is “disarmingly innocent,” and Jerusalem’s multiple archaeological layers are “vertiginously sunken – resentments and miracles parfaited.”
His writing is suffused with such little epiphanies, words and images springing to fresh life: His Mexican mother’s ojalá, “God willing,” as a Spanish borrowing from the Muslim inshallah; yellow tulips “closed and as thumpable as drumsticks” outside a Vegas hotel as a friend dies of AIDS in a nearby hospice; Picasso’s division of the female face “into competing arrondissements – one tearful, one tyrannical – like the faces of playing-card Queens.”
But at the heart of this book are women. Rodriguez – gay, Catholic Rodriguez – loves women. Not the way many men say they do, with a sexual twinkle in their eye, but deeply and gratefully. The stand-alone masterpiece of the title chapter starts with that “voluble endearment exchanged between lovers on stage and screen” (Noël Coward‘s “sequined grace notes flying up” like “starlings in a summer sky”), touches among other things on the use of habeebee among Arab men (“In a region of mind without coed irony, where women are draped like Ash Wednesday statues … men, among themselves, have achieved an elegant ease of confraternity and sentimentality”), and builds to the central take on how much the three “desert religions” need women to survive (“Somewhere in its canny old mind, the Church knows this. Every bishop has a mother.”).
Rodriguez depends on women “to protect the Church from its impulse to cleanse itself of me.” It was women who stood against the arid maleness he sensed as a child: “Outside the Rodriguez home, God made covenants with men. Covenants were cut out of the male organ. A miasma of psychological fear – fear of smite, fear of flinty tools, fear of lightning – crackled in God’s wake. Scripture began to smell of anger – a civet smell. Scripture began to smell of blood – of iron, of salt.”
He writes movingly of his schoolteachers, the Sisters of Mercy – movingly, yet with a wry, clear eye. A single sentence evokes a whole Irish immigrant world: “Most of the women who swelled the ranks of missionary orders had left peat-fumed, sour-stomached, skinny-cat childhoods behind.” That wry eye notes their “burqa-like habits” – perfect! – which “lent them protection in the roustabout world, also a bit of romance.” These women in teaching and hospital orders, he writes, were the forerunners of feminism, “the least sequestered women imaginable.”
The specific “darling” here is a newly divorced friend, and the whole chapter is in a way a conversation with her – an extended love letter, really – leading up to this stunning conclusion: “I cannot imagine my freedom as a homosexual man without women in veils. Women in red Chanel. Women in flannel nightgowns. Women in their mirrors. Women saying, Honey-bunny. Women saying, We’ll see. Women saying, If you lay one hand on that child, I swear to God I will kill you. Women in curlers. Women in high heels. Younger sisters, older sisters; women and girls. Without women. Without you.”
Even the most flinty-hearted reviewer could only melt at that.