Sweet Heaven When I Die
I don’t review everything I read – mostly I now focus on the works that make me think about how they’re put together. Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between certainly fits that particular bill. Coming out of an academic background, I’m inclined against anything that follows the Title Colon Subtitle pattern, even when it works. And it does work here and I understand why he does it (and why everyone does it), but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s inelegant.
Inelegant is not the word I would use to describe the rest of the book, however, which, according to the table of contents, is a series of thirteen essays beginning with “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” and ending with “Born, Again.” But before I go too much farther, it’s probably useful to consider the kinds of things Sharlet writes about generally. He and co-author Peter Manseau wrote Killing the Buddha, which has since become its own website. He’s written on religion and politics (the horrifying The Family and C Street). And, it’s worth noting, I met Sharlet at an artist residency in the autumn of 2008. That doesn’t give me any insight into his writing that anyone else can’t get, but it probably makes me want to err on the positive side of things, if I have to err. Mostly I know that he likes to write about belief.
Belief (faith) doesn’t have to be a coordinated ideology or a religion or even a tenet of a religion. As far as Sharlet is concerned, it doesn’t even have to be anything more than an organizing principle; it doesn’t have to be the organizing principle. For example, the introductory essay “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado.” It begins with a first person account of Sharlet’s trek to Colorado to visit a collegiate girlfriend – not in a John Cusack kind of way; they’re both married – because they’re still friends. They still write letters to one another (actual letters, not email) but they’ve grown deeply apart since their early 20s. Molly is no longer an anti-gun, anti-violence, areligious but deeply interested in religion person. She rides a horse, is a good shot, goes to church, and has been elected DA. Sharlet spends time on Molly as she used to be as well as on who she’s become so that we have a good sense of the person that we’re going to meet. And yet, their actual meeting takes up only a very small section of the writing. He spends as much time considering a bar/motel called “Sweet Fanny Adams” (from which the name of this essay derives) and the people in it, a way stop on his journey. It is a place populated with non-Coloradans who have fallen in love with the place and settled there. But Molly is the key, and for me, so is this passage.
Back through Bailey and past Sweet Fuck All and up over Kenosha Pass – and then the whiteness of South Park, at which sight I said, “Oh my God,” even though I’d seen it before. She stared out at the passing valley, which glared back, dazzling beneath the sun but for a few broken barns. “The things people do,” she said. I didn’t know whether she was talking about changes in the land or the crimes she had defended and the crimes she’d now prosecute, or simply her own decisions, her desire to put a finger on the scales, to counter all that she knew she couldn’t change. I waited for her to explain. Silence followed for a few miles. And then: “It’s almost like any action anyone would take, or does take, is of little consequence. No consequence, considering all that they are exposed to.” A mistake people make about this land, she said, is to suppose that it offers salvation. “You get to the point of thinking of the elemental forces of the world as if they’re not… cruel. But – look around.”
Here she is, a newly-minted DA, responsible for prosecuting mistakes, bad decisions, and cold calculations, and considering at the same time the larger picture. Later she asks, “If you yield to God without a fight, are you worth a story?” I take her statements as the cornerstone to the essay, but the motel Sweet Fanny Adams as an emblematic picture of big city and east coast converts to the West. You fight. You fall in love. You fight to stay in love. You wrap your love in ferocity. You bear the consequences.
That’s the kind of belief – faith – that Sharlet is writing about, and it’s from that position that it’s good to consider his subtitle: faith, faithlessness, and the country in between. Where will this faith find its end? Not in an apostate-ic way, but in a soft fall. Where does a separate belief have to pick up the load? Where do the inconsistencies begin and how do we address them? I say “we” intentionally; Sharlet always includes himself in his writing and is never removed from the action.
If you were to look only at the table of contents, you would see thirteen chapter headings. End of story. Which is how I approached it at first. But that’s not exactly how Sharlet has put this collection together. The first thing that struck me in the reading is that two essays in particular are very, very short, more like interstitial musings than the ethnographic writing he engages in the rest of the time. “Clouds, When Determined by Context” (7) and “What They Wanted” (10) stand out for being so different in that way. Then I got to the end of the book and chapter 13 very much made the entire work feel like a personal… struggle? Statement? (Do those even have to be different things?)
And that made me think about the structure again. Chapter 1, “Sweet Fuck All, Colorado” is an introduction. “Born, Again,” (13) is a conclusion, framing the whole work. “Determined by Context” and “What They Wanted” are organizational headers for chapters 8-9 and 11-12 respectively, which suggests that chapter 2 “Bad Moon Rising” does the same for chapters 3-6. It’s not a perfect analysis and I think it reflects organizing principles (belief!) more than it does a hard outline, but I do think it works.
The first section is about the triumph in lost causes and the tragicomedy of human endeavor. All of that sounds a little oxymoronic but I think it’s a fairly accurate assessment. Sharlet doesn’t shy from showing futility (his uncle dying from Viet Nam related cancer) or personal blind spots (Cornel West’s towering intellect versus his serial monogamy and devotion to women (or at least to courting women)), but in spite of Molly’s accusation to the contrary, I don’t find him to be a pessimist. Each of these essays has some kind of celebration to them, whether it is the author’s own or in the portrayal of people with whom he implicitly disagrees. No one comes across as stupid or misguided or foolish. These essays are fundamentally about individual people and individual causes. They are small stories, confined to the people who live them and bring them out to the rest of us where they can. In “Quebrado,” the story of guerilla journalist Brad Will, his triumph does not come in death; his triumph is a result of his death. It is only because he has died, and because of the way that he has died, that his mother can finally see the world the way that Brad did. Whether this will be transformative for her is not the focus of the essay and if that’s what you’re looking for you will feel cheated, but Sharlet never promises that either. This is Brad’s story, not hers.
The next three essays (interstitial plus two) are about fundamentalist Christianity; as Sharlet names it, “a faith for futurists.” These are more about individuals in larger belief systems and the stories feel correspondingly bigger. The first entry here concerns a German church and its focus on forgiveness, with an implicit belief in timelessness – anything in the past (Nazis) is past. We are here for the present. The second treats BattleCry, Ron Luce’s Christian answer to pop culture, and the necessity of sacrifice.
The last section is what I would call performative or symbolic action in which the act itself is what is important, not its result or lack of result. In a way, this is a very ritualistic form of thinking, as each correctly carried out action confirms anew the individual’s place within the world or movement. Although the interstitial writing is about anarchists and the first full essay is about New Age spiritualism, which might suggest that this is a means of behavior confined to fringe groups, the last essay is about the Philadelphia music scene and one man’s role in a larger capitalist machine – and more importantly, how he sees himself within it.
Rachel Maddow has called Sharlet “an unmatched reporter” and what Sharlet does is much more journalism than it is reporting. Like a good post-modernist, he doesn’t believe in objectivity, but unlike most other post-modernists, he knows what to do after that: make a choice. His is to be as transparent as possible. He makes moral judgments about the people that he writes about and those come through in the stories that he chooses to tell but not in the way he chooses to tell them. He is not spiteful or mean-spirited or snarky. He is thoughtful and considered. I know from his Twitter feed that he doesn’t like the phrasing of “literary journalism.” Coming from my academic training in Folklore, I’d call it ethnography.
Honestly, between the two as far as book blurbs go, he’s better off with literary journalism.
My interest waxed and waned from story to story and not every one hit me full on the first time out, but that was my reaction to the content rather than to the writing itself, and all of them are thought-provoking and discussion-worthy. These are, ideally, things you read and go and have a conversation about. You don’t read the whole book and go to book club and try to wrap your head around the disparate stories. You read one, you go to a coffee shop or a bar with someone who is interesting and thoughtful and the two or three of you start off talking about “Rock Like Fuck” (12) and then see where the ideas take you.
It often feels like fiction, given the degree of detail and reflection that he puts in and I’d love to know how he goes about taking notes when he researches because he’s obviously not writing in the car over Kenosha Pass. I mean that as praise, incidentally. There’s nothing pedantic or preachy about his writing. As he concludes in the deeply personal “Born, Again,” “This is not a redemption story.” He suggests that it’s more about growing backwards, but I would counter that it is a return to the past and a return to the future, inconsistent and frequent in its moves. The way we think. The way we live.
More disclosure: Sharlet was one of the co-founders of Occupy Writers in the autumn of 2011 and I was one of the volunteers who maintained and added names to the website.