I had long since given up on contemporary American fiction, although the Neoformalist movement has reinvigorated my interest in some of today’s American poets.  The last American novelist I really admired was Walker Percy.  And even he never gave us what I had vaguely been looking for: a dramatization of the lives destroyed—or nearly so—by the 60’s and 70’s.  But now I have discovered this novel, one that is quite literally dedicated “To the memory of an undistinguished generation cruelly sacrificed at the altar of Pleasure.”

John Harris, a former professor of English literature, is the editor of Praesidium, a fine journal of ideas and criticism that appears both in print and online (literatevalues.org/prae-4.3.htm).  He is also a novelist who, judging from this book, deserves to be much better known.  From the epigraph from Orlando Furioso (Le lacrime e i sospiri degli amanti . . . ) to the final sentence on page 397, there is not a false note.  It is as if an American Dostoyevsky had taken on the Baby Boom generation and shown us just how their ideas and pursuits, while providing “great times” for some of them for a while, contributed to the construction of a living hell for others and, eventually, for some of themselves.  I have suspected for decades that my first wife and my three children—to say nothing of myself during the worst period of my 61-year existence—were among those legions for whom the Dionysian dismantling of traditional constraints, coupled with the falsely Apollonian pursuit of angelic compassion (to borrow a useful polarity from Joseph Epstein), led not to blissful freedom and utopian harmony but to hellish confusion and emptiness.  And, until now, I was unaware that their story had been told, or even identified.

As an introduction to Footprints in the Snow of the Moon, however, this formulation is unfairly abstract.  Harris is a maker of fictions par excellence who understands that the most effective “novel of ideas” is the one that takes place entirely in the soul as an arena of spiritual battle: the soul of a real human person.  And Anthony Toole is such a person, as are his parents, his younger brother, his younger sister, and especially the two women in his life, Celine and Gina, as well as his corporeal enemy but spiritual friend, Richard.  Anthony hardly even realizes what the real struggle within himself is but ultimately learns that what he wants is to be a good man, a moral man, at a point in history when the official doctrine of his generation’s “intellectuals” is that the whole distinction between good and evil is a mere social construct.  The powerful psychological and spiritual tension that is, almost incredibly, maintained on every page derives from this gap, the one that separates “Tonio’s” pursuit of the ancient quest for the Holy Grail, requiring sacrifice and patience, from the pursuit of pleasure now and “social justice” now all around him.

Not that Tonio is pulled in that direction.  But Celine and Gina, whose lives are interwoven with his more significantly than anyone else’s, are, unbeknownst to themselves, placed in false positions by the Zeitgeist: Celine because, as a truly natural woman, she is temperamentally at odds with the bogus naturalism of the “movement”; and Gina because, as an exponent and champion of feminist ideology, she paints herself into an inevitable corner of unhappiness.  The real triumph of the novel is that these two women are far from being embodiments of concepts: They are thoroughly living beings.  Celine’s yearning sense of beauty and deep-rooted guilt live in her emerald eyes and strawberry-blond hair, while Gina’s wit, brilliance, and willfully suppressed desire for truth and real love scintillate in her black locks, deep brown eyes, and queenly elegance of manner.  The temptation with which Tonio is confronted in the climactic scene of the novel, the unforgettable reception for foreign diplomats at the state capitol in Austin, is rendered as concrete and real as the bizarre landscape of Lake Wachita as seen from Eagle Rock.

Thus, the novel is not a screed against the Baby Boomers but is partly generated by a righteous and entirely justified anger at the depredations of feminist ideology, which has never been so well dissected since Chesterton wrote “Feminism, or the Mistake About Women” in What’s Wrong With the World in 1910.  It is precisely because Harris has a light touch and touches only tangentially on the impact of the new “ideas” (actually, mere justifications for desires, as he shows) on real people that the force of the insights is so deeply felt.  Tonio is even aware of the potential unfairness of turning actual people into living symbols of the attitudes he has come to hate, as when a hospital nurse questions him about Celine’s suicide attempt and he assumes her to be categorizing him as one of the standard “cultural enemies” of feminist thought—the male whose insensitivity drives the woman to suicide.  He is surprised, however, when she shows him some real sympathy.  She is human, after all.  Later, when feeling particularly alone, he even contemplates seeking her out for comfort!  So Harris evades the trap of becoming an ideologue—or counterideologue—himself.  His characters are human, and so is he.

There are lesser delights in this novel as well.  On one level, the book joins the ranks of academic dystopias, as its hero passes from graduate student to dorm warden to become, eventually, a counselor in the state university system of Texas; and yet nowhere in the Groves does he encounter what he yearns to find, which is real culture.  He thinks he encounters it, ironically, at the thoroughly artificial reception at the state capitol, where, under the influence of champagne and cognac, he is delighted by the banter of the various diplomatic personnel.  And, in fact, he is right, to this extent: They keep alive a kind of traditional sense of cultivated decorum that has been thrown, lock, stock, and barrel, out of the quondam Ivory Tower.

I did find myself wishing that Tonio, having learned the hard way that there is such a thing as sin and that one must fight against it, might take the next step by looking into religion.  Instead, he briefly expresses the view that the Church is just as bad as secularism, and so tries to maintain his “independence”—not grasping, apparently, that he is performing a variation on an error for which he had accurately indicted the “new women” of the day, with their false conception of autonomy.  This is the only point at which I am a bit disappointed with Harris’s protagonist.  But maybe I am being unfair—asking for a different book, or even a sequel comparable to the conversion novels of Joris-Karl Huysmans, which is not at all what Harris has in mind.

Anyway, this is a good novel—perhaps even a great one.  It belongs on anybody’s short list of books that have a chance of passing into a future canon of works exploring the effects moral decadence has had on American society.


[Footprints in the Snow of the Moon, by John R. Harris (Beechgrove, TN: Mathews Book) Publishers; 397 pp., $14.99]