- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LYING WITH THE DEAD

By Michael Mewshaw

Other Press, $14.95, 288 pages

Reviewed by John Phillips

In his beguiling memoir “Do I Owe You Anything?” novelist and journalist Michael Mewshaw described his enchanting friendship with Graham Greene in the British writer’s final years based in southern France. Nearly two decades after Greene’s death, Mr. Mewshaw has moved to fill the vacuum left by his mentor with a dazzling, suspenseful 11th novel, “Lying With the Dead,” exploring in a modern American context some of the tortured Roman Catholic themes that were a hallmark of Greene’s extraordinary achievement.

The novel depicts in sparse, lyrically beautiful prose the tragedy of a dysfunctional family from Maryland whose formidable matriarch summons home her three children. Each sibling recounts his or her drama in turn during a final bedside reunion.

Maury, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and spent time in prison for killing his father when a teenager, arrives by bus from his impoverished and simple existence out West working on a caravan camp. Candy, the eldest of the three at 60 and the only one still a devout Catholic, already is in Maryland where she looks after her mother and dreams of finally settling down with her boyfriend in North Carolina. Quinn, who escaped his white trash background to become a successful, hard-drinking, hard-loving and hard-fighting actor in England, flies in from London.

The genesis of the book is the true story of the Dresbach murders that Mr. Mewshaw recounted in his celebrated nonfictional work “Life for Death.” Maury’s character recalls closely Wayne Dresbach, Mr. Mewshaw’s school friend who killed his cruel and decadent parents Harold and Shirley Dresbach in 1961. Maury also resembles in part Lennie, the mentally childlike but physically powerful character in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

But while his earlier work of reportage was concerned to expose what he showed was the effectively feudal system of justice in early 1960s Maryland, Mr. Mewshaw’s latest masterpiece probes modern Catholics’ ability to uphold their church’s teaching on the right to life in the face of pressures to practice abortion and euthanasia.

Greene’s most Catholic books had a dark quality that reflected his lifelong battle with depression and could make grim reading, at times, even for his many admirers. Mr. Mewshaw, however, leavens his majestic novel with some superb black Irish humor recalling vintage James Joyce.

Candy, for example, pokes fun hilariously at Mom, the manipulative anti-heroine who is half Medea, half Clytemnestra, who cannot abide the new Catholic liturgy.

“She misses fire-and-brimstone sermons. She’d phone in her confession if they’d let her. Grudgingly she accepts a monthly visit from a Filipino priest she accuses of being a homo, and just as grudgingly depends on me to deliver Communion.”

Once the family is reassembled in the childhood home, prejudices about love, religion and murder are shattered as the novel reaches a moving climax. The fast-paced run-up to the denouement recalls versatile Mr. Mewshaw’s ability as a gripping thriller writer in his earlier novel, “Day of the Gun,” about Marxist terrorism in Italy, which became a film starring Sharon Stone.

That novel included some hot but tasteful sex scenes evidently designed for the stunning actress. Mr. Mewshaw’s latest work periodically gives some similar relief from his journey into the heart of darkness of a family dynamic. Quinn is depicted convincingly enjoying the seduction of a graduate student 15 years younger than himself in Venice, and Candy finds relief from her spiritual dilemmas in a memorable scene.

“Then we undress each other, a couple on the wrong side of fifty, fleshy and sun-freckled, well past our prime, making a spectacle of ourselves. But I’m not apologizing. I’m grateful.”

At age 66, Mr. Mewshaw like Greene in his sixth decade, shows no sign of slowing down, continuing to be hugely productive also as a book reviewer, travel writer, investigative reporter and tennis reporter.

His dedication to writing in a constellation of genres is impressive. His 19th book, “Between Terror and Tourism” will be published this winter, recounting a recent journey he made overland across North Africa from Egypt through the killing fields of Algeria to Morocco, to explore from the front line the clash of civilizations.

With characteristic humility, Mr. Mewshaw recently brushed off suggestions that he may have done much to revive the tradition of Catholic writing in English that critics say appeared to have died with the passing of Greene and his fellow convert Evelyn Waugh. Mr. Mewshaw noted that the idea of a Catholic novelist never gathered much traction in the United States.

Perhaps. But the issues his engaging characters grapple with are sure to appeal to a wide audience on both sides of the Atlantic as the church struggles to find its way during an unremarkable pontificate.

“I’m confident you’ll do beautifully on Judgement Day,” Quinn tells Mom.

“I don’t count on it,” she flashes back, “That’s why I pray so hard. What the hell, these days I pray for the church. I never thought it’d come to this - me praying for its soul instead of depending on it to save mine. You must have heard about the scandals here.”

“Lying with the Dead” is an impressive book by a world-class writer at the height of his powers. Mr. Mewshaw serves up a rich menu of disturbing food for thought not just for Catholics but for anyone concerned with the future of the family and the prospects for the survival of Christian values in the 21st century.

John Phillips is the author (with Martin Evans) of “Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed” (Yale University Press, 2008).

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