Book Review: The Dead Sea Conspiracy by James Fitzpatrick

Memorable Characters

Combining a fast-moving but intricately plotted mystery with a wry rendering of modern man’s ethical shortcomings, Fitzpatrick skillfully accomplishes a feat eluding all but the best of today’s fiction writers: treating religion as if it really mattered in a serious but unsentimental way.

Dead Sea gets off to a bit of a slow start and the first four chapters could have been collapsed into one or two. But the book’s suspense soon builds as two brothers, Frankie and Leo Corcoran, plot to rob French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s grave, after an ex-Jesuit reveals an astonishing secret. The powerful pull of Chardin’s heretical treatises like “The Divine Milieu,” — theological nonsense now as out-of-date as hula hoops — on the minds of “progressive” Catholics is one of the book’s most fascinating subplots.

Fitzpatrick creates two memorable characters: Francis Xavier (“Frankie”) Corcoran and Helen Bergeron. Frankie, a hard-drinking, womanizing Irish Catholic, never quite loses the intellectual rigor ingrained in him by his Jesuit schoolteachers. While a true American hedonist, Frankie’s Catholic upbringing does what it’s supposed to do — nudge him toward virtue even as the flesh pulls him the other way. In a nearly invisible and unconscious way, Corcoran’s faith illuminates the goodness and beauty of self-denial and the keeping of vows in a culture that prizes neither.

Helen Bergeron is the gorgeous, enigmatic flame lighting Corcoran’s fire. A beautiful, intelligent — and pious — editor, Helen provides Frankie with a near occasion of sin, but her upright integrity and his regenerated conscience combine to prevent his adulterous fantasy from becoming a devastating reality.

Contemporary American Culture

Corcoran’s ending reflection on virtue’s intrinsic reward is one of the novel’s finest moments: “Everything fell into place. All this, the goodness of her life, was a consequence of the sacrifices and inner restraints that made these family joys possible. Not a bad trade-off: surrendering the smarmy attention of guys-on-the-make like me in order to remain at the center of the lives of this man and the teenage boys who needed her. The self-respect and dignity that made her what she was were a by-product of her other commitments to virtue. You couldn’t have one without the other.”

Part of Dead Sea’s attraction is Fitzpatrick’s cynical description of contemporary American culture and fresh, witty metaphors. Example: “Leo had donned his Sunday-go-to-meeting outfit too: gray polyester slacks, white turtleneck, and a blue blazer that must have been purchased fifty pounds ago. The back vent was split as wide as the canvas awning over a gangplank.” Been there, seen that.

A Literature Throwback

The author’s intimate familiarity with New York and its environs is obvious and a good deal of the novel’s fun are the mental pictures drawn of the Big Apple’s nooks and crannies. Fitzpatrick’s description of Irish pubs like St. Dymphna’s, Ryan’s and Annie Moore’s provide colorful backdrops for Dead Sea’s rollicking twists and turns.

While its setting is as contemporary as today’s news, Dead Sea is also a throwback to a better period of American fiction. The author’s lean, manly prose and taut storytelling is reminiscent of writers like Damon Runyon, Raymond Chandler, and — in his depiction of the irrational absurdity of “progressive” thinking — even Walker Percy. Best of all, Fitzpatrick’s characters operate in the real world, the true “Divine Milieu,” where the stakes are high and every action counts in an individual’s march toward heaven or hell.

The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store.

(James Bemis is a columnist for California Political Review.)

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