A Review of
Via Negativa : A Novel
Hardback: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020
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Reviewed by J. Brent Bill
I wanted to read this book for a several reasons. One is that I’m drawn to novels with spiritual themes. I have been for decades. So, with a title like Via Negativa, I was ready to settle down and explore it.
Another reason I wanted to read it was that the author, Daniel Hornsby, was born in Muncie, Indiana. As a native Midwesterner, I also am drawn to fiction by fellow Midwesterners. And the fact that he was born in Muncie, where I once lived, sealed the deal.
The final reason I wanted to read it was that, according to its back cover blurbs and inside cover description (not always to be trusted, he said as an author himself), it sounded like it would be a quirky book. In this midst of all that is going on in the world right now, I needed some quirk. And humor.
I was not disappointed on any of the above counts. It is hauntingly spiritual, it has what I call a Midwest sensibility which consists of a certain gentleness combined with a clear-eyed insight into human frailty, and it is humorously quirky.
The concept of Via Negativa, the Latin term for negative way of theology, which tries to move beyond any human knowledge holding that God transcends that which can be known. Yet, in what may seem odd (or quirky, even) it also holds that we can experience and come into union with God. That a theological concept first put into words by a fifth century fellow named Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (writing at the time as Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian convert of the Apostle Paul) and later used by theologians and mystics down through the ages should be used as the basis for a novel is a bit quirky, too. Thankfully so!
The novel opens with Father Dan witnessing a coyote being hit by minivan. This priest, whose hermitage is his aging Toyota Camry which he’s been living in for the past month, is on a journey, or pilgrimage, if you will, to the Pacific Northwest from Indiana. As the novel progresses, we find out that he and his bishop have had a major falling out (not their first) and he is parish-less.
Dan stops to examine the coyote, sees it is injured, takes a blanket from the Toyota’s trunk, wraps the coyote in it, and, after clearing away some of his mobile library in the backseat, lays “the coyote’s head on the selected writings of Origen of Alexandria and wedged my collection the Venerable Bede’s homilies between the seat belt and the blanket to brace the animal’s ribs and diffuse the pressure of the strap when I buckled him in.” And we’re off on a cross-country metaphysical and theological Travels With Charley with a priest and coyote rather than John Steinbeck and his poodle.
Origen does not stay under the coyote’s head. He pops out, along with other theologians and mystics including Ignatius, Merton, Simone Weil, and Julian of Nowich, in Dan’s musings and recollections along the way.
Like any true pilgrim, whether on the Camino de Santiago or the Hajj, there are stops along the way. Dan drops in at bars, diners, “Martin’s Hole to Hell,” “The World’s Largest Ball of Paint” (which Hornsby places in Kansas but which is actually in Alexandria, Indiana, just down the street from the Alexandria Gun Club and 20 miles from Muncie), and other holy places. In most, if not all of them, he has a religious experience – not necessarily welcomed by him. He continues to wear his Roman collar and so is called upon to hear confessions (in a bar), offer sanctuary (in the Camry and not from the coyote), and more. All along the way he also encounters, in negative ways to him, the Divine – a billboard that reads “Choose Life” (“It sounded like something Jesus would say, but not in the way it was meant here.”), “Jesus on a bumper sticker on the back of truck on I-70, beside the words ‘REMEMBER, I AM WATCHING YOU,” and a fifty foot tall Jesus “seemingly carved out of soap or sugar” outside a church. He thinks “My country is a bad church. A church of itself.”
He is also pursued by demons – notably the pedophilic Father Bruno, his theological professor in seminary and a good friend of Dan’s bishop, and his refusal of a request by his best friend, the former Father Paul. Along his way, he stops to see both Paul and Bruno.
He’s also pursued by the presence, and occasional stench, of the coyote in the back seat, now housed in a pet carrier. The coyote is not the lovable companion that Steinbeck’s Charley is, but Dan feeds and gives him pain pills, while hoping some kindly animal rescue place will take him in. None does. The coyote becomes known, along the way, as Bede.
And so our priest and his wild animal make their way along a via negativa to Portland in a story that is compelling and very well written.
Any of us who have served a congregation as a pastor, will resonate with some of Dan’s darker musings such as “Maybe … I’d misheard my calling, or worse: God had dialed the wrong number” and regarding communal events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals, “You may stand in the middle of things, but you’re really on the outside, an extra in the movie, not much more than a prop.”
Father Dan, in addition to his many books, carries another piece of sacred writing with him on his pilgrimage. It’s a much folded, much read letter from Paul. In it are these words from Paul to Dan:
… I always felt that you loved and accepted me no matter what I did or what happened to me, and that’s why I feel like I can tell you all this now… You always reminded of God that way, a kind of weird, artsy guy whose love I needed, but could never understand.
Is Father Dan’s the pilgrimage along via negativa? Or a slightly hidden, but always present via positiva?
I’ll let the reader decide. But make sure you read it.
J. Brent Bill
J. Brent Bill is a writer, writing teacher, photographer, and Quaker minister. He lives on Ploughshares Farm in rural Indiana which has been converted from production agriculture to a tall grass prairie and woods filled with native trees. His newest book Amity: Short Stories from the Heartland will be released in 2023. Find him online at: BrentBill.com