Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reviewing A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen

I haven't written about books in such a long time I miss it. Since Nora's been born I've hardly read any fiction but have read a couple of great non-fiction books (My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir and Happier at Home) because for some reason I find it easier to read a non-fiction book if I can't find time to read every day. I also read a stack of easy-to-read but not-much-to-write-about fiction in the last month or two of pregnancy because all I could do was lie around. But finally a great novel to write about!

Ron Hansen is one of the today's best Catholic writers. His past books have delved into stories that appear to be more "Catholic" than others such as Mariette in Ecstasy and Exiles mostly because they centre upon confirmed Catholic characters. But what is common in all of Ron Hansen's eight novels is the historic contexts in which his stories are set. He has a canny ability to tell a tale that happened in a specific era while not alienating or burdening the reader like so much other historical fiction. Hansen seamlessly blends the time period with the plot and characters. He does the same with the theological themes which also characterize his work. With Mariette in Ecstasy he explores the fine line between the mystical and the psychological aspects of faith, in Exiles the problem of suffering for faith. In his latest novel, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion the consequences of sin permeate the telling of the crime and trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray from the roaring twenties.

Ruth Snyder a young yet glamorous housewife and mother who lacks much moral character enters into what seems to be simple affair with a corset salesmen she happens to meet named Judd Gray. The affair seems harmless at first, Judd however begins to feel the compulsion to stop the adultery due to his church-going even though he is also in a loveless and staid marriage himself. But soon the affair escalates in intensity, especially in Ruth's influence and control over Judd emotionally and sexually. Soon Ruth has convinced Judd that she is trapped in an abusive marriage and that the only way the two can pursue their passionate and carnal relationship with each other is to kill Ruth's husband Albert. Of course, Ruth has also gone to the length of taking out one, two, or three extra terms of life insurance on her husband. Judd is reluctant, increasingly dependent upon alcohol, but finally gives in and joins Ruth in killing her husband. What follows is one of the first crime trials covered in detail by the media. Every lurid detail of the couple's affair was divulged, and scorned, but it led to a certain celebrity cache for both Judd and especially Ruth, the first femme fatale, and began a fascination with lust and crime that with which the media has been infatuated ever since.

Hansen's prose is always beautifully straight forward. His simplicity is crafted perfectly in that it pulls the reader completely into the story and historic time period while not wasting a word yet not plunging the reader into pages of irrelevant context in order to describe the historic setting. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion is a great example of this skill as the story moves swiftly through the illicit relationship to the crime itself bringing the reader deeper than what would seem simply biographical. Hansen's subtly is something I enjoy a lot. Where an author would be tempted to go heavy handedly in a specific dramatic scene Hansen always applies a deft hand, the drama and intensity of the scene can sometimes overtake the reader because of this application. His skill is at its height in any death scene, I still remember the chills I felt when reading certain portions of Exiles, and in this novel the ending was both intense and tragically written.

The overall undercurrent of the book however, is sin and its effects. What begins as a one time encounter becomes a full fledged affair between Ruth and Judd. The sexual relationship between the two becomes almost out of control. Soon murder is talked about casually, then seriously, then planned and committed. The gradual escalation from the sin of lust to murder happens all too easily for the characters.

Hansen's storytelling makes the slippery slope from initial lust to entertaining ideas of murder almost seamless. Its as if the characters lose all prespective on reality outside of their temptuous relationship. They become increasingly obsessed with each other and their sexual assignations. As mortal sin cuts us off from sanctifying grace it in turn also skews our view of reality. We lose our perception towards what is right, things seem upside-down. In consequence one seemingly minor sin leads to a greater sin which leads to committing actions which would previously been unthinkable. The connection between lust and murder is not as wide a chasm as one would think as this story proves.

Because the crime was so ill-conceived the police arrested the couple almost immediately and the newspapers descended on what would be a hugely publicized trial for the time. Movie stars even attended the trial. But Hansen depicts this part of the story in a fascinating way as well. Ruth is still extremely volatile, never claiming responsibility, constantly changing her story, showing no signs of remorse or even the acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crime she has committed.  She does however, convert to the Catholic Church, misguidedly wearing a rosary in the courtroom. Her interior state remains uncertain even up until she faces the electric chair, but the idea of her possible remorse and redemption is an idea that Hansen does not let the reader forget. Judd goes to the opposite extreme and ends up penning a memoir exhorting others to use his mistakes as a warning against sin, preaching to his fellow inmates. Hansen subtly brings up these ideas of the spiritual complexion of the two murderers during the trial and subsequent jail time in a way that raises questions about forgiveness and redemption in the reader.

What makes a good Catholic novel is not that the characters themselves are Catholic. Nor even if the story involves churches, Bibles, conversions or priests as is the case in so many "Christian" books. What makes a good Catholic novel is the exploration of the great truths of life the Church has always held fast, like sin and the forgiveness of sins, through different stories from creative and imaginative writers. Ron Hansen remains one of the best Catholic novelists with this most recent work.


  1. I loved Ron Hansen's Exiles in one of my college classes--I'll have to check this out. I'm especially intrigued by the idea of the tension between the difference and possible similarity of the two murderers

  2. The links were all giving me an error 404.

    I'm intrigued by these books, but I really never read grown up fiction because with YA I don't have to worry about graphic descriptions of grown up behavior. How does Hansen handle those scenes?

    1. Darn-I don't know what I did with those links!

      I would say that this book of Ron Hansen's in particular is only suitable for adults. It has some descriptions of sex, but I thought it was necessary to further the story as the murder was a direct result of an adulterous relationship and lust. It was also historically accurate as the trial made public a lot of sordid details of the couple's sexual relationship. The other books I mentioned here by Ron Hansen have no sexuality and have a much more direct reference to Catholicism. I'd definitely recommend reading either Mariette in Ecstasy and Exiles as they're terrific stories with beautiful writing.

  3. I love all your posts and APPARENTLY my comments aren't making it out of head! I'm always looking for good, truly good fiction that, you know, isn't something I've already ready three or four times (although I do enjoy a good re-read now and then). I enjoy this space you have so much. You really inspire me to trust that God is in the midst of crazy post partum NFP. Thanks!


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