John L'Heureux's characters are generally people in uncomfortable spots that tend to get infinitely less comfortable as the action goes on. In Having Everything, the title describes the middle-aged psychiatrist at its center. Technically, he does have everything: a prestigious Harvard teaching position, a beautiful wife, and two great kids. Trouble is, Philip Tate's beautiful wife is addicted to booze and pills, and Tate discovers new, self-destructive urges in himself that range from breaking and entering to infidelity with an equally screwed-up woman.
In An Honorable Profession, a popular high school English teacher whose personal life is a bit of a mess becomes even more troubled when a young student grows close to him and he finds himself destroyed by accusations of impropriety. L'Heureux revels in thorny issues, whether it's a marriage that's falling apart (quite devastatingly in The Shrine at Altamira) or a priest's decision whether or not to remain with the church (in 2002's The Miracle) -- a decision that L'Heureux himself faced when he ultimately decided to end his vocation as a Jesuit priest in 1971.
In his other, more farcical novels such as the academic satire The Handmaid of Desire and the comedy-thriller A Woman Run Mad, L'Heureux reveals his skill at creating a stable of nutty characters and bouncing them off one another. He is occasionally accused of being anachronistic: The New York Times said of The Handmaid of Desire, "Perhaps the time has passed when academic satire can be carried off successfully," and Salon accused Having Everything of being "so prim that it seems to belong to another time altogether." But if L'Heureux's themes aren't always new, his readers appreciate the funny and poignant twists he brings to them.
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Joan Polston L'Heureux has been the dedicatee of all of her husband's books since their marriage in 1971.
L'Heureux is a former Jesuit priest who left the order in 1971.
L'Heureux (pronounced Ler-ruh) has taught fiction writing and literature at Stanford University since 1973.
He is also the author of four volumes of poetry, which have gone out print; and a memoir, Picnic in Babylon: A Priest's Journal, also out of print.
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In 2002, John L'Heureux answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life, and why?
Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain was unquestionably the book that most influenced my life. I read it and meditated on it and then left college in my junior year to study for the priesthood. I was no Thomas Merton -- neither as writer, alas, nor as saint -- and I left the Jesuits after 17 years.
What are your ten favorite books?
Not in any order:
- Anna Karenina -- Leo Tolstoy
- Emma -- Jane Austen
- The Ballad of Peckham Rye -- Muriel Spark
- The Power and the Glory -- Graham Greene
- Anything by Chekhov
- Middlemarch -- George Eliot
- The Black Prince -- Iris Murdoch
- Sword of Honour -- Evelyn Waugh
- The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne -- Brian Moore
- Sacred Hunger -- Barry Unsworth
- Anton Chekhov, who brought his relentless compassion to bear upon
every character he created.
- Flannery O'Connor, who plowed a measured furrow and dug deep, deep.
- Don DeLillo because of Underworld and those dazzling first 60 pages.
- Garry Wills because of his brilliant command of church history and his
fidelity to the church despite all that.
- Muriel Spark for the wickedness of her imagination and the perfection
of her style.
- Evelyn Waugh and his glorious satire.
- Mary Gordon because she writes about things that matter.
- Eavan Boland, whose poems and essays will surely win her the Nobel Prize
one of these days.
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The author offers some thoughts on his own work.
My first four books -- poetry -- were exercises in working small, taking the metaphor as far as it would go, exorcising anger, desire, desperation, love, coping with God and his odd ways. My later books of short fiction (Family Affairs, Desires, Comedians) are, in a way, extensions of these poems. The stories explore the mysterious and ironic interventions of God in our lives, the range of the supra-rational, the rags and boneyard of the heart.
In my early novels (Tight White Collar, Jessica Fayer), it seems to me I'm searching for something larger than the self, something or someone to give allegiance to, some persuasive reason to go on living. The Clang Birds is a satiric version of this search.
My more recent novels are concerned with the problems of sanctity in a post-Christian world. In A Woman Run Mad -- in Angelo -- I've tried to create the reluctant saint, sanctified almost despite himself and his promiscuity. In An Honorable Profession -- in Miles -- there is the blundering saint, saved and perhaps ennobled by the thing he runs from, the thing he fears most in himself. And in The Shrine at Altamira -- in both father and son -- there is the saint unaware, who does not care about God or salvation or anything else, but who nonetheless gives everything, even his life, in a single and apparently senseless act of love. The Handmaid of Desire is a satire on academic life and the making of postmodern fiction. Having Everything examines the limitations of desire. Word is not yet in on The Miracle.
I hope this doesn't sound solemn and pretentious, an attempt to give form and significance to what I've been doing with my life. In fact, all these books are a pack of lies intended to entertain and illumine and dismay, and -- for myself -- to explore the shape of mystery that lies behind the few things I know.
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