FIRE SERMON. By Jamie Quatro. Grove Press. 205 pages. $24.
In her slim, beautifully combustible first novel, “Fire Sermon,” Jamie Quatro treats the mysteries and complexities of love, marriage, faith and infidelity like the highly flammable subjects they are — elements of light, heat, energy — as fundamental as they are dangerous. With searing prose and a tilted approach, Quatro builds a bonfire from the tiniest sparks of well-honed detail, and this reader was drawn to its flame.
The story revolves around a 3-year-long emotional affair between two writers, Maggie and James. Maggie, like the author, is a married mother of two living in Tennessee, and a writer and teacher, but a poet at heart, whose literary passions and ambitions get tamped down by academia and motherhood. James is her literary alter ego — a famous poet with tattooed wrists (sight on one hand, vision on the other) — and they discover a shared love of Melville, Aquinas, Plato and Bach.
Their relationship begins innocently enough, with an email from Maggie, a fan letter, and James responds, thus launching an electronic pen-pal courtship. Quatro captures the nuances of the modern epistolary — the subject-line drama, the appropriate sign-off, the challenge of voice and how to strike that balance of familiarity, humor, warmth and, eventually, intimacy — in formats (email and texting) that can be tone deaf and mechanical.
They explore heady theological and philosophical ephemera; their idea of flirting involves chitchat about “Western cataphatic modes,” the “Summa Theologica” and debates on “the ontological versus cosmological arguments for the existence of God” — not everyone’s idea of a turn-on. I have a Masters in theology and even I sometimes found these sidebars stilted and tritely erudite.
But this gray area where the sacred and profane, the body and spirit, intermingle and entwine is Quatro’s subject matter, both in this novel and in the short story collection “I Want to Show You More” from which this work evolved. Like the great mystics Hafiz and Rumi, she explores ecstatic experience, whether religious or sensual, and the commonalities and conflicts that arise when these false dualities collide.
Desire, in Quatro’s fictional worlds, is de facto divine. When Maggie and James meet at a conference in Chicago, their virtual romance tips to the inevitable, and Maggie is left to untangle emotions — guilt and joy, the impulse to restrain versus the desire to relinquish all.
The strength of this condensed, spare story is Quatro’s stripped down prose. Her voice is naked, direct, urgent. Phrases stand alone, untethered to conventional grammar constructs. They dare, implore, seduce. The narrative’s chronology is nonlinear, it’s dizzying and difficult to follow, which, come to think of it, is exactly how our lives play out. We mark our days on a calendar that suggests a consecutive flow, but we experience time like waves coming in and rushing out, a constant wash back and forth between memory, longing, dreaming and then the harsh erosion of real moments, hours, months, years long gone.
Quatro juxtaposes flashbacks and immediacy in the same sentence, and her writing evokes this unsettled nature of being, the way longings and lust can upend our needs and musts, the way the realities of today can be unmoored by the hauntings of yesterday, by deeds or dreams left done or undone.
If you like a sequential plot, this book might drive you crazy. But if you appreciate an author who can make and break her own rules and isn’t afraid to play with fire, then you’re in for a treat.
To many this will be a book about an affair, but I read it as an ode to marriage. Maggie’s husband, Thomas, at times seems almost too good to be true and a bit one-dimensional, but the tender moments between them and amid the shared raising of children stack up like small stones that over time become a solid enough foundation.
Marriage, Quatro shows, is not spark and flame, but rock and salt, bitterness and loss, held together (one hopes) by kindness, understanding and forgiveness. “The gathered years: grains of spilled salt brushed from a table into an open palm. Each a nothing, barely noticeable — yet if you were to examine a single grain beneath a microscope, you would see a bright expanding flare.”
I confess it took me a while to warm up to Quatro’s disjointed narration, but the steely precision of her descriptive passages are enough to carry this slim book, this embered ode to longing and devotion in its various forms: religious, married, parental, familial, forbidden.
Reviewer Stephanie Hunt is a writer in Charleston.