Love Among the Junk

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Oregon Confetti
By Lee Oser
(Wiseblood Books, 2017, 318 pgs.)

Lee Oser’s romping satire, Oregon Confetti, follows the spiritual journey of Devin Adams, a semi-corrupt art dealer attempting to maintain his place in the Portland scene without becoming a complete charlatan or losing his soul. In order to patronize true art, he must be willing to peddle trash at exorbitant prices to unsuspecting philistines. As he tells one prospective lover, “I sell art to people who know nothing about art at all. For them, it’s about status . . . It’s all a big scam, a confidence game.” Devin’s one redeeming quality is his devotion to the brilliant but un-trendy John Sun, the last in a line of noble Chinese painters. Unlike nearly all modern artists, for whom Adams and Oser seem to share a profound dislike, Sun is devoted to order, sanity, form, and technique. His art is not a commentary or a protest; it is, like an Orthodox icon, a window to another world.

When Sun shows up on Devin’s doorstep with a mysterious child (who may or may not be the last Emperor of China), our protagonist becomes an unlikely partisan in a shadow war between Chinese government agents, local crime syndicates, and the Oregon state government. While playing a tangential and (frankly) incomprehensible role in this power struggle, Devin finds himself embroiled in a more immediate, spiritual struggle. Torn between his lust for the conniving nymphomaniac, Eve Labcoat (yes, many of the names are painfully on-the-nose, including baby-emperor Virgil), and his burgeoning love for his devoted assistant, Devin must either return to the morality of his Catholic youth or burn out in the fire of his own brutal but banal desires. Oser’s concern with the theological/political/economic nexus of sex finds full expression in this tug of war between the desire for a hollow lust object and the desire for a potentially-gratifying sexual partner. Devin’s sexual escapades highlight at every turn the true perversity of modern, porno-mimetic sexuality, namely its lack of interest in the present act of sex and its investment in sexuality as a mechanism for violent exploitation and domination.

The incidents of the novel: the art scene, baby Emperor, gangsters, and sexual hijinks – though entertaining and poignantly written – carry with them a tinge of unreality. Oser seems uninterested in the predictable and believable. Instead his novel approximates a mixture of Augustine’s Confessions, Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. In fact, this hyper-literate thriller makes good use of all of the above and adds doses of Beckett, Rabelais, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Joyce, Greene, and others to boot. Narrative, plot, character, all of these things serve as more-and-less solid props in a combination of conversion drama and social satire

Oregon Confetti unapologetically blasphemes the various new deities that have been added to the Western Liberal Pantheon in the last two decades in its attempt to proclaim the unknown God of Christianity to the modern Athenians of Portland and the world. At times, this relentless satire recalls Percy and Waugh at their best, as when Devin’s friend and renter, the irreverent cartoonist Froio, becomes the target of the state’s “Free Speech in Oregon Act.” “The bill’s key provision would outlaw ‘hate jokes,’ defined as ‘humor in any way, shape, or form that makes any person of any race, religion, or sexual orientation uncomfortable, on any grounds, whatsoever.” Exempted from the protection of this law are “those secured against hate jokes by historical privilege, for instance, by their unreconstructed rhetoric of reason and/or binary thinking, as in the use of the pronouns he and she.” Soon after, Froio finds his wheelchair ramp stolen and his house egged by the militant forces of liberal toleration and free speech.

Other assaults on modern liberalism are harder to follow. While searching his closet for shoes to wear to a summit between leaders of the Tong and Red Dragon gangs in a penthouse of Portland’s KOIN Tower, Devin must settle for novelty kicks from a previous binge: “So I dusted off a pair of green derby shoes that I’d worn to a Saint Patrick’s Day pub crawl back in the day, before such merry old pastimes were banned in the name of social justice.” A brief google search leads me to believe that Saint Patrick’s Day pub crawls are still well-attended in the City of Roses, and the connection with “social justice” (a phrase Oser frequently deploys as an incantation to summon the specters of liberal Jesuits and Jesuitical liberals) is lost on me. Hyperbole and irreverence should be par for the course in a satirical novel, but the satire still has to make sense. It sometimes feels as if Oser is so dead set on subverting the culture of political correctness that he is willing to do so at the expense of the profound wit that characterizes most of his work.

Such wit serves the author well on those occasions where he clearly feels tempted to sermonize. At one point, Devin finds himself along with a dozing priest and a hyper-attentive college student at a sparsely-attended Friday lecture delivered by his would-be confessor, the imposing and ancient Father Low. Devin does his best to report the content, but, in a humorous move reminiscent of Ronald Firbank, Oser disrupts the deadly-serious argument of the good Father’s sermon with the distracting noises of youthful enthusiasm and the apathy of age: “Father Pye’s snoring crescendoed among the acoustic panels before subsiding to a light recitative among the purple seats. The young man’s pencil raced across the page. Father Low went on.” Attuned to the fact that even great wisdom must compete with and often be drowned out by the indifference of dogs going on with their doggy lives, Oser refuses his priest and his readers anything like an easy epiphany.

Those familiar with Oser’s first two novels will appreciate Oregon Confetti’s departure from the world of Rock and Roll as well as its sporadic, fantastical approximation of crime thriller plot mechanics. Someone is either shooting or being shot at in most chapters – usually by cartoon Asian-American gangsters. They may or may not appreciate the predictably providential story arc. This is Oser’s third novel starring a semi-debauched male protagonist on the rocky road to conversion and salvation. Early on, we learn that Adams, the son of a saintly mother and a ne’er-do-well father, was raised by Jesuits and has been fighting their influence ever since, a background not unlike that of Huysmans’ infamous sybarite Des Esseintes. Because of his early education, much of his narration risks impenetrability to the uninitiated. Few enough Catholic readers could make sense of similes such as “He was swinging my Christmas flannel back and forth like a thurible.” It is a Catholic novel with a capital C. In a contemporary literary scene where such books almost never find a publisher, Oregon Confetti provides a welcome religious counter to the deluge of post-secular malaise found in most novels. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wanting something a bit subtler. In his 1935 essay “Religion and Literature,” T. S. Eliot expressed his desire for “a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.” While I would not accuse Oser of anything like artistic provincialism, Oregon Confetti struck me in several places as a book written by a Catholic for Catholics. Such moments felt like a step backward after the achievement of his second novel The Oracles Fell Silent, a book in which the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Church emerge more as a wondrous surprise than a foregone conclusion.

Like Oser’s previous work, this novel opts for a comedic ending that feels right in its insistence on the power of grace but slightly off in its too-tidy recuperation of dissolute characters. The novel’s denouement follows Oser’s insistent desire to see providence at work in the lives of his protagonists. As a fan of his work, I cannot help asking if there are any artistic limits to this desire. Can Oser learn to love his protagonists without trying to force them to love God as much as he wishes he could? Can he give us a Catholic novel like Greene’s The Heart of the Matter that embraces the tragedy of our age without the need to realize its comedic potential in the final pages? Perhaps his next novel will answer these questions. I await it eagerly.