Book Review: Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette
Review by Katy Carl
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021

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In the schematic offered by recent dialogues on faith in fiction, Claire Luchette’s Agatha of Little Neon registers both as a “shout” and a “whisper”—though the shout may be one of pain, the whisper one of resistance. While Luchette’s acute perception renders tangible the desperate practical and spiritual poverty of flyover America both outside and within the Church, the novel’s wit surfaces the tragicomic pathos of deep contradictions in the human heart that make possible and perpetuate that poverty.

At story’s start, the four sisters whose formation the novel follows live cheerfully, if thriftily, with the elderly, dependent, but spiritually stalwart Mother Roberta. But when their diocese falls into financial distress due to radical mismanagement, Agatha and her sisters are sent out—all of them aged nineteen, untrained, and unprepared—into the still more precarious wilderness of Rhode Island. There they are set to live and work in a halfway house (the eponymous “Little Neon,” named for its highlighter-hued walls) for recovering drug addicts. Largely unmothered themselves, they are asked to spiritually mother their mostly much older charges on a budget flatter than the tortillas they wrap around their walnut (yes, walnut) tacos—all while denying or suppressing their own unhealed trauma and unaddressed needs. Not themselves at peace, they cannot bring peace to others, especially once high school teaching duties are piled on top of their domestic and pastoral obligations.

Throughout her trials—which start out funny, yet grow increasingly serious—Agatha’s white-knuckled faith is nurtured by little more than the hazy memory of a shallow Catholic education, one that never offered her much more than a heavy insistence on conformity rewarded only by the vexatious formula her geometry teacher antiphonically repeats: “You’re on the plane.” What plane? Not the vertical plane, not the y-axis of existence, rising toward God, but rather, we are left to surmise, the flattened plane of outward conformity. The nourishment of the Sacraments is all but absent from Little Neon’s mission life; the substance of doctrine, except for its most unattractive and unpopular iterations, almost completely so. The Bible study led by the sisters for adults in the community speaks of the sparsest middle-school-level formation on offer anywhere. The study’s most robust attendance comes, comically, not from the draw of the water of Life but from the lure of free jars of mustard. “Church explained nothing of my life, but church pulled me forward,” says Agatha of her younger self, and she could say the same throughout much of the novel as, wanting so genuinely to offer something of substance, she finds she can give only what she has received—even when the fruits taste of vinegar and turmeric.

Nor do the clergy make much of a showing in the novel. Father Thaddeus registers as aloof and a bit dead-eyed. Father Steve evokes cringes with his plans to “make God cool again,” his predilection for guitar-strumming at Mass, his counterintuitive scorn for any hint of transcendence. Luchette’s sense of satire is as alive to Father Steve’s aesthetic absurdities as to the foibles of Agatha’s sisters or, later, to the much graver matters that plague the Church Agatha loves. Though a priest’s disastrously tone-deaf sermon will provide the inciting incident causing things to fall apart at novel’s end, the reader feels the sense that Agatha’s pain stems less from the priest’s obvious human and doctrinal errors than from the lack of care for souls these errors represent. That lack of care finds its echoes presenced and specified everywhere in the novel’s universally distressed feminine presences, its universally compromised masculine ones.

For Luchette’s sisters, a good man is so hard to find that the only one in evidence is a recovering addict, Tim Gary, who (to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, since the New England halfway house of Infinite Jest lurks unavoidably in this novel’s background) has been “ablated way past anything that seems fair” by the disfiguring ravages of jaw cancer. “He had hurt; he had hungered,” Agatha tells us. His addiction to pain medication began in the vulnerable time after cancer surgery, when he grew dependent and despondent because the cosmetic procedure needed to restore his appearance would cost “half a million dollars”—way out of financial range for a lonely fry cook with “half a nursing degree” that his illness had kept him from completing. His pain and disfigurement, to a certain extent, images Christ’s in a way no other male presence in the novel comes close to doing.

Absent and wounded mothers also haunt this text: the narrator has lost not only Mother Roberta but also her own mother, the latter due to a postpartum hemorrhage delivering a baby brother when Agatha was eleven years old. A hurting Agatha transmutes her personal grief into a larger, broader, spiritually diffuse reflection on all the ways the Catholic subcultures of her childhood have failed her. Conspicuously missing in this reflection, though, is an accounting of the wishes, needs, desires, and beliefs of Agatha’s own mother. The daughter’s loss and pain, rather than the mother’s reasons for believing and choosing as she did, remain at the perspectival center.

By some lights the novel’s most sympathetic figure will be found in Mother Roberta, the aging, retired nun who first trained the four young women in the ways of religious life, and whose ways of reasoning and feeling are somewhat more available to the reader than those of Agatha’s own mother. Despite being a young Catholic woman myself, I may tend to align more closely with the elder Mother Roberta’s way of thinking and being in the world than with the narrator’s. Still, it’s Agatha my heart most goes out to, and this response speaks well of Luchette’s unfaltering control of tone and empathetic feel for the characters’ distresses and the reader’s sympathies. Under Luchette’s careful guidance we feel the pinch of Agatha’s plight and the depth of her largely unspoken, but everywhere implicit, sorrow.

Beyond its literal arc, which spans a range of tones from the wryly buoyant to the poignantly elegiac, Agatha’s story speaks volumes about the crying, unmet needs in spiritual and personal formation in Catholic culture. Wish it different as we may, offer counterexamples as we might, still the reality so skillfully rendered in Agatha of Little Neon is the reality of many beleaguered, underfunded local Catholic cultures. More than half of the United States is still administratively considered mission territory. The situation Willa Cather describes in the opening pages of Death Comes for the Archbishop (set in 1848) has scarcely shifted for many Catholics in underserved rural and urban areas of America, which “still pitifully calls itself a Catholic country, and tries to keep the forms of religion without instruction. The old mission churches are in ruins. The few priests are without guidance or discipline. They are lax in religious observance….If this Aegean stable is not cleansed, … it will prejudice the interests of the Church in the whole of North America.”

Agatha’s experience mirrors that of thousands of high-school and college youth-group denizens who, in the face of desperate staffing shortages and groaning logistic stresses, are harvested into “ministry” before they are ripe. Before their education is half complete, they are thrust unfairly into what they are told is “leadership.” Spiritually undernourished, they are set to “witness” to their peers and to serve the less fortunate, “voluntold” to demonstrate the depth of their own commitment before gatekeepers will in turn commit scarce resources to them. Souls like Agatha’s are offered up as virgin martyrs to Church teaching by leaders who are unwilling to bear martyrdom for that teaching themselves.

What resources are available to women like Agatha, who want deeply to find an authentic identity in belief and in service to the most vulnerable but who, in the face of evident spiritual neglect, come quite understandably to believe that their souls are not valued? Are the resources of faith truly available in the sense that they are offered in a spirit of warmth and generosity, not of pressure and fear?

The answer is not going to be found in sweeping doctrinal change (metaphorically suggested in the novel by the plot’s one weak point, a strained and overextended analogy about a principal’s bizarre refusal to change school rules on the directionality of staircases) or in large-scale cultural shifts. It is not going to be found in another expensively produced, slick curriculum package, or in another parish program administered by already burnt-out volunteers, or in another political crusade. Answers come only by grace, and grace comes only by the Sacraments, which exist to provide the widest possible access to grace to the greatest possible number of souls.

Meanwhile, the art of fiction cannot solve Agatha’s problems, only depict them: which in Luchette’s capable hands it does, with admirable craft and tenderness. The reader is left with a sense of a soul adrift, in yearning need of any place she could possibly call home. Whether and how Christians will reach out their hands to the Agathas of the world—in such a way as safely to shelter and heal them—remains to be seen.

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Katy Carl is the editor in chief of Dappled Things magazine and the author of As Earth Without Water, a novel (Wiseblood Books, 2021) and of Praying the Great O Antiphons: My Soul Magnifies the Lord (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). She is pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.