The first thing to know about Fatherless is that it is a good story well told. There are suspense, intrigue, insight and a look at life as we live it today, albeit through a slightly different lens.
In his first novel, Brian J. Gail takes on the modern icons of mass market porn, contraception, corporate finance and the “feel good” faith of America, and wraps them around the lives of three families who wrestle with the moral challenges of the day.
Gail, 62, is the father of seven children and the grandfather of five. He lives with his wife in Villanova, Pennsylvania, where Fathers for Good contacted him for this interview.
Fathers for Good: What got you to sit down to write your first novel at age 60?
Gail: Due entirely to God’s providence, I retired at 58. This permitted me significant time to read and think about the issue that most concerned me: the state and sustainability of the faith and culture inherited by our children. There was no shortage of secular explanations for America’s precipitous demise but I knew instinctively the underlying causes went much deeper.
The Baby Boomer generation has been “hollowed out.” We lost our “moral energy” – that indispensable human faculty that allows man to bridge the gap between what his technology permits him to do and what his heart tells him he ought to do. In exchanging freedom for license we exhausted 12 generations of spiritual and cultural patrimony in a single generation. This changed the world, which was precisely what my generation boasted we would do. I wanted to explore the consequence of that revolution in fictional narrative and use my life and career experiences as a point of departure.
FFG: Why did you set the plot in the 1980s?
Gail: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II were redrawing the map of Europe and Asia through the power of an idea, without having to resort to firing a single shot. In fact, the only shot fired was the one fired at the pope, in the 1981 Soviet-backed assassination attempt designed to preempt the inevitable surge of human aspiration. It was “Morning in America” and throughout the world there was a palpable sense of hope that a better moment in history had arrived. Beneath the surface, however, the demonic flytrap that had been set during the sexual revolution of the 60s was ready to be sprung.
Fatherless is the first of three planned novels. It is my hope, with God’s blessing, to create an American trilogy which addresses the singular question future generation will ask: “What happened … and why?” The work will cover the 40 years of America’s peak ascendency and stunningly swift decline from 1980 through 2020. I am currently at work on the second novel, which is set in the present moment.
FFG: Some Catholics writers today say you can’t write a novel based on the moral teachings of the Church because the plot will be too determined. Yet you managed a suspenseful plot that shows rather graphically how all the characters would have been happier if they had followed the Church.
Gail: Frankly, I did not spend much time thinking of genre when I was conceiving and writing Fatherless. I simply wanted to explore the larger metaphysical themes through the eyes of a parish priest and three of his parish families who were struggling to reconcile a pursuit of the American Dream with the Church’s Universal Call to Holiness.
My sainted mother who died five years ago, on the feast of All Souls, used to tell her children: “Sin is expensive.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realized she was talking about “cost” rather than “expense.” It has now become quite clear that the “cost” of making bad choices in the primordial matters of life and love is beyond prohibitive. It is often tragic and ruinous to individuals and whole families. And, ultimately, it becomes the flip switch for the decline and fall of empires.
FFG: The title “Fatherless” mainly refers to the lack of priestly guidance in the Church today. Explain.
Gail: This question is addressed in a scene near the end of the novel. It is a “last supper” of sorts for a class reunion of priests celebrating their 10th anniversary of ordination. They are in a private back room in a restaurant in Rome and they are in a festive mood. Suddenly the room quiets and one of the men asks: “What happened?” Initially, the question is misunderstood. Ultimately, however each man weighs in – revealing both his great love for Holy Mother Church and the cavernous divide over what she “now” holds to be true.
We feel the effects of this confusion in an earlier scene in which a young husband and father confronts the protagonist, Father John Sweeney, and says: “Father, if you don’t trust us with the truth, in a very real sense you render us spiritually fatherless. And in this culture, that’s a death sentence.” Fatherless is dedicated to our priests in the Year for Priests. At one level, it is the plaintiff cry of a father begging our priests to tell our children the sacred truths of life and love; truths we would not permit them to tell us.
FFG: What message do you hope readers will take away?
Gail: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver once prophetically proclaimed “…there will be no renewal of America unless there is a renewal of the Catholic Church in America. And no renewal of the Catholic Church unless there is a renewal of the Catholic family. And no renewal of the Catholic family unless the truths about the sacred transmission of human life are boldly proclaimed …”
I think the good bishop got it exactly right. Fatherless is simply a response to that evocative summons.
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