In recent years, the phrase “Catholic writer” has become highly problematic. Some bestow it like a laurel on the brow of anyone who writes about pious Catholics who manage, through thick and thin, to follow all the rules. Others use the label in a nostalgic (and laudable) quest to find the next O’Connor, Percy, or Greene. Still others habitually track down Catholic “themes” in fiction by any author whom they discover attends Mass or was educated by nuns.
Every now and then the real thing comes along: a Catholic writer who writes well enough to satisfy literate readers who judge fiction by the canons of fiction, not theology. It’s a bonus when that Catholic writer occasionally peoples his narratives with familiar characters — like the sexually confused ex-seminarian or the young, excessively certain priest. You recognize him not by his profession of faith, or his attention to clergy and rituals, but by his well-crafted works of imagination infused with a sacramental intelligence.
McNabb’s name should ring a bell among well-read Catholics: Yes, he is related to the famous Dominican Rev. Vincent McNabb, who rivaled his friends Chesterton and Belloc as a stylist. “He was my great-grandfather’s father’s brother, Patrick, one of eleven, who came to the States,” McNabb told me on the phone from Portland, Maine, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their four young children.
Both of McNabb’s daughters suffered strokes before they were born and now have cerebral palsy. Working at home, writing early in the morning and late at night, he is the primary caregiver for all the children. “I started writing fulltime ten years ago, ever since I married Sharon,” he told me. McNabb had struck it rich in his 20s, living in New York City and working for a Russian trading company that shipped millions of dollars of poultry and beef to Russia. “Everyone wanted a piece of us,” he told me. His success allowed him to move from Greenwich Village to the affluent East 59th off Sutton Place — where he suddenly decided to give it all up.
McNabb took a seven-month break in Ireland, where he started writing, something he knew he wanted to do since he had studied for his MBA at NYU. Upon his return at age 30, he married his wife, who was then a junior partner at Smith Barney. They moved to Newport, Rhode Island, so she could work in Providence, they could begin their family, and McNabb could continue to write. After nearly four years, the McNabbs moved to the West End of Portland, where many of his stories are set.
It wasn’t a stretch: McNabb grew up not far from Portland, in North Reading, Massachusetts, where he was one of five children (including two who were adopted) in a practicing Catholic family. He studied business at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before leaving for his eight giddy years in New York. Always a devout, practicing Catholic, McNabb admits to having “been more sinful than the next person — sex, drugs, the kind of people I kept company with.” When I observe that some of this experience shows up in his stories, he comments, “This has been my experience. To write any other way would be wrong.”
McNabb’s stories are not going to be read aloud on EWTN anytime soon. Impure thoughts abound — not just sexual, but violent and spiteful. Take this description of a man fuming with rage as he watches a woman, a widow he knows, waiting for her dog to leave an “extrusion” in his front yard:
This wasn’t the Balkans where neighbors turned murderous overnight, but Portland, Maine, where it was the case, as with any other place humans lived, that at a moment’s notice you could circle in and find what was easiest to despise about just about anyone.
Note the totally unexpected meditation that follows, as the man decides to go out and clean it up:
The widow and the others — the cowards who came and left under the cover of darkness, the hypocrites who bagged only when someone else was about — they provided for him this necessary task, this debasement, this penance, and for that he felt the tiniest bit of gratitude.
This is typical of McNabb’s stories; what makes them so involving and moving is his attention to moments in life where many of us instinctively look away or simply turn off our thoughts to get through unpleasantness.
Most of his stories are short — some as brief as 500 words. “This is just how it happened for me,” he explains. He finished two “crappy novels” but is working on a memoir, Daddy’s Hope, about being a stay-at-home father with kids who have health issues.
Many of McNabb’s characters are frail, sickly, and elderly. One of the most touching, almost haunting, stories — “Their Bodies, Their Selves” — alone makes McNabb’s collection of thirty tales a must read, and there are many others that rise to its level. “It’s What It Feels Like,” the only long story in the volume, about an estranged husband who has won the lottery, has an ending worthy of O. Henry. “The King of the Tables” follows an elderly man with a schoolboy crush as he competes for his beloved’s attention while serving meals in the parish basement.
McNabb’s stories juxtapose the pure and the impure, the violent and the tender, the body and the spirit — yet there is nothing in them suggesting a Gnostic dualism. The unity of his stories is achieved by drawing our attention to a dogged mortality we would rather ignore. The Body of This is a sustained, poetic meditation on one character’s message to her injured husband: “There you are, and here I am.”