I guess it is me, but I will often recommend a novel that begins with someone “talking to Ralph on the big phone.” It seems a sure sign that this might be a Catholic novel.
To delicately translate “talking to Ralph on the big phone”: It was a college euphemism in my day. It meant getting sick to one’s stomach.
Bill Dodds’ latest book begins with his anti-hero, Saul McNeil, stopped in traffic when he suddenly leans out the car door to talk to Ralph on the big phone. He’s videoed in all his glory by passing teens who post the display on the Internet where it goes viral. So to speak. And we’re off.
Bill Dodds is an old friend from the Catholic press who writes Catholic novels. His new one is called “The World’s Funniest Atheist.” (Just go to Amazon.com, type in the title, and you can find out how to have it wirelessly delivered for $2.99.)
The book stars our indisposed Mr. McNeil as a third-tier celebrity with a stand-up act. His act is atheism and he gets his laughs poking fun at religion. He’s a poor-man’s Christopher Hitchens, the late professional atheist.
McNeil’s travails are only beginning when he loses his lunch. Life gets so bad that he’s finally reduced to a gig on a planned reality show called “God in the House.” He will be the resident atheist to a group of believers. By believers, the show means everything from witches to Catholics.
This might sound depressing, but with Dodds at the helm, “The World’s Funniest Atheist” is both funny and faith-filled. A real Catholic novel.
There are not a lot of good Catholic novels. There are a number of treacly works filled with pious platitudes that sell themselves as Catholic. There are also a number of works that don’t think of themselves as Catholic novels, but truly are. Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” is a book about God alive in human affairs, even if King would probably not describe it that way.
Catholic novels — and Catholic art, in general — don’t have to be dipped in holy water or star an eccentric Irish priest or an angelic nun teaching ragamuffins how to play baseball.
Generally speaking, a Catholic novel has to be about truth and pilgrimage. The language might be hot, the action desperate. They are earthy and realistic, filled with fallible souls that often don’t realize that they are searching for truth. Until they find it. And even when they find it, that just means a pilgrimage is beginning, not ending.
But I’m getting too serious, especially for Bill Dodds, who has another book based on a conversation with a sock puppet. He’s a serious writer who lives for the unserious.
Bill hails from the state of Washington. Absorbed in the diet-crazed food phobia of his home state, he hadn’t realized during a visit to Indiana that Hoosiers will eat anything that doesn’t move, and a few things that do. After he tried to digest a bacon-wrapped pork chop, I asked him if he’d like coffee. “I’m afraid they’ll put a stick of butter in it,” he answered.
“The World’s Funniest Atheist” fills the bill and more. One of my favorite scenes is when McNeil awakes only to find himself face-to-face with a one-armed Jesus on a 5-foot-tall crucifix. McNeil asks the owner, “You keep the little crucifix here in the bedroom and the really big one out in the living room?”
“The World’s Funniest Atheist” is realistic, quirky and earthy, with a little romance thrown in for good order. It is a book on the mystery of faith, and how it all gets caught up with hope and love.
A pilgrimage without pat answers, the most important line in the book is a simple one: “And God laughed.”
It’s a real Catholic novel. If you’ve got the stomach for it.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.