Finding God in a Small Town: A Review of Can You See Anything Now?

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photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash

You could hardly imagine two more different artists than the ones you meet in the opening pages of Katherine James’s debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? [Paraclete, 2017].

There’s Margie, who paints vivid canvases, attributing personal characteristics to still lifes, sketching nudes, and doing a grand scale work featuring ovens that make her daughter think of Sylvia Plath.  Margie, who explores and struggles with depth and negative space in her attic studio, her life, her family, and in Trinity, her small, upstate town.  Margie, who chooses drowning as the method for her latest suicide attempt because it is “metaphorically appropriate in light of the lungs filling with liquid and air bubbling upward like packets of life that pop at the surface” (5).

Then there’s Etta, her churchgoing neighbor, whose painting tends toward tomatoes and rooftops.  Her work is folky, adorned with rusty nails and wire, accessible, and easily reproducible.  She has a front porch with a Cracker Barrel rocker and she reads popular Christian books to help strengthen her marriage.  Her cooking tends to Crock Pot recipes and hot dog casseroles.

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Katherine James

The artist behind these artists is Katherine James, who has fashioned a richly-textured, sharply-observed book that deserves to be in the hands of everyone who grieves over the divides of our day, longs to feel God’s presence in the land of living, and who imagines unlikely friendships.

Margie and Etta are not the only characters in this book, but their friendship is emblematic of James’s vision.  It begins when Margie, fresh off an MS diagnosis, canoes out to a swimming platform in the lake on a crisp, fall morning, ties a rock to her leg, and slips into the waters only to find that the lake is more shallow than she expected.  After several hours of floating with her head above water, she is rescued from her humiliating predicament and returns home.  Etta drops by the house with a basket of bran muffins a few days later and over the course of time  Margie finds that she has many more chapters left, not only with Etta, but with her therapist husband, Nick, and college-aged daughter, Noel, as well.

James’s strangely hopeful book drops in at a difficult time in our American narrative.  It’s not that her many well-defined characters don’t have struggles.  They do.  Opioids, family dysfunction, cutting, and a horizon of lowered economic expectations—they’re all here.  The inescapable cultural and political divide of Trumpian America is always in the background.  And the threat of death returns in another incident in the waters, when Noel’s troubled roommate, Pixie, visiting during the Thanksgiving break, slips beneath the ice of the town’s river.

Even so, things are being restored in Trinity.  Noel and her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Owen, find their way past old divisions and emerge from a day (at the lake) as lovers.  Pixie’s odd father, Pete, comes to town to care for her, and finds a kind of faith.  When he shares with Nick and Margie his simple trust in God to raise his daughter, Nick resorts to his rationalist reservoir.  “There’s a lot to be said for religion,” Nick says, though he himself can’t say much for it.

Yet the whole exchange takes place in a warm kitchen over beer and fettuccini, hinting at a kind of communion all the characters are longing for.

“I’m homesick,” Noel says as she watches her mother paint through her pain.  “Even when I’m home I’m homesick.” (282)

Katherine James,  the painter, uses her artist’s eye to give her work shifting perspectives, moving deftly between characters in each of the short chapters.  She brings us up close to sensual details, which we pass each day.  The sad, “gray plastic fountain [in the nursing home] that had a stream of water over a shelf of yellow-stained plastic and them emptied into a little pond with a rock in the middle, and then pumped back up to do it again” (285)?  I’ve seen that fountain.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames can also soar into the heavens to see the world with the eyes of God, nowhere more effectively than in the climactic vigil that ends the book.  When the skeptics and the true believers gather in a nursing home parking lot, they bring their coolers and pick food from aluminum trays that sit atop folding tables.  Even their greatest attempts at spiritual connection are surrounded by the trappings of American consumer culture.

And yet “view the town like an eagle,” and you see a great river of people on a quest.  “The trees are pine near the water and into the air they emit a nostalgic smell, a backwards whisper reminding people that they can’t get at something they know is important…The day is still and hot and the people are waiting.  The people are like grasshoppers and they wait.” (305-6)  Like God, you can’t help but love these troubled, searching people.

Don’t come to Can You See Anything Now? with the expectation of composed piety.  Katherine James has seen hard times and her writing displays the searing quality of those experiences.  There is beauty, but whether you can see it now is always an open question.  God and faith are here, but they appear in the way they do in real life, in quiet, unexpected ways and always on the provisional ground of the present day.

This is a deeply Christian book, and it is excellent Christian fiction.  It’s also just plain, unqualified, excellent fiction approached with real heart.  Go, see what you can see.

My interview with Katherine James is up now!.

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Rural Soul – guest blogger: Sara Porter Keeling

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Sara Porter Keeling can tell you about many things, but today she goes Across the Street to shed light on how community is built in a small town.  Sara is the pastor of three United Methodist Churches in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains.  She’s also got some truly excellent preacher boots:

This is God’s country, we say, beautiful and preserved, just pay no mind to the power lines.  Rappahannock County boasts a view of the mountains, twisty curvy back roads, and an unyielding commitment to environmental protection.  Unlike so many rural areas, our economic struggles are encased in beauty.

A closed orchard is still lovely in its own haunting way.  It still produces fruit.  There’s a sense of dignity in a run down farm house or a hollowed out barn that is absent in a closed down factory or barren strip mall.  There’s tension here between growth and development and the way it’s always been.  Tension between the native “been heres” and the arriving “come heres.”  No Walmart here, no affordable housing, and please don’t complain about your cell phone not working or lack of internet service because you knew what you signed up for when you moved out here and it wasn’t to stream 5 episodes of Friday Night Lights on Netflix.

In the bustling village of Flint Hill where I reside, I’m in walking distance to the bank, the post office, one of my churches, the local firehall, and a smattering of restaurants—all of which are essential places for community connectivity, but none so much as the humble gas station which sits directly across the street from the parsonage.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.  Someone over there has the answer to whatever question you might have.  The solution to every craving or inquiry.  Across the Street is where you go for last minute things: Baking and you ran out of sugar.  Having a party and you need chips.  Had a hard day and you need a beer or ice cream.  Nail in your tire: have Travis fix it.  Motorcycle needs inspecting: Travis, once again.  It’s about time for a new truck: go talk to Bubby.  You go Across the Street.

Across the Street, as it is called in my house, is the hub, the watering hole, the think tank, the information source.  It’s better than Google, which honestly can’t tell you all that much about Rappahannock anyway.

It’s also the place to go for information.  We found a dog sitter.  A job for my teenager.  A source for local, grass fed beef.  The latest updates on who is in the hospital, who is getting a divorce, who is moving or going into the nursing home and of course, everyone’s exact opinions (like it or not) on the Current Administration.

There’a table in the back and a bench out front for when it’s warm where the old(er) men gather.  I can’t tell you here what they call themselves, other than to say it’s a little obscene and they were hesitant to tell me, but I know their secret.

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Sara Porter Keeling in her preacher boots

Everyone greets them, but some are reluctant to plop down and join them, especially the women.  I’ll tell you that it helps to be a pastor who is comfortable plopping down and chatting with just about anyone anywhere, but the real trick is that it helps to have a baby on your hip, which I’ve had twice, through the six years here.  Whoever said men don’t like babies never met these guys, as they compete to make fools over themselves for a little one’s attention.

You can walk into any Starbucks in any American city and speak only to the barista.  If you walk into a cafe in Rappahannock, you will see at least eleven people that you know, and two of them that you’ve been meaning to call.  Grabbing a latte also means getting an update about that ill neighbor and checking in on funeral arrangements.

The heart of rural life, of rural ministry, is not the land, or the preservation, or the lack of jobs, or the resistance to new technology.  It’s the people.

There’s immeasurable joy in the connectivity of community.  A connection that I worried might’ve been lost in our nation, in our church when I served an urban parish . . . and a connectivity that I will surely grieve when my time here has ended.