Virginia Barton

Nostalgia clouded by incense

Catholic Herald, 19 July 1991


Review: Good Boys and Dead Girls by Mary Gordon (Bloomsbury, £14.99)


I shall be forever grateful to Mary Gordon for introducing me to the books of J.F. Powers. Before I’d even finished Good Boys I shot out and bought Morte D’Urban (Hogarth Press, £5.95), Powers’ hilarious tale of a career-minded priest in the American mid-West, first published in 1956.

Good-Boys-and-Dead-Girls-9780670825677Mary Gordon is very good on writers and writing, the subject of the first half of Good Boys. Fifteen twentieth-century authors are examined in short essays; the good boys and dead girls of the title figure in the work of Faulkner, Dreiser and Updike. The dead (or passive) females are a real drag on the males’ natural talent to get up and go, victims of machismo. Whether or not one is persuaded by her argument, Ms. Gordon’s sheer energy pulls the reader into a book that is spirited, witty and clever.

The second half of the book consists of essays grouped under the subjects of the world, the church, and women. The reader has already twigged that Ms. Gordon is a staunch supporter of women’s rights, so this part of the book is more predictable. She takes a swipe at the Pope, has a go at St. Mark’s gospel, and indulges in some incense-clouded nostalgia for the Catholic church of her youth in New York. An encounter with a group of Lefebvrists at Oyster Bay, Long Island, is extremely funny.

For someone who apparently no longer practises it, she’s got a lot of mileage out of her Catholicism. The role of the iconoclast must be exhausting and not surprisingly, it sometimes makes for tiring reading. But even in this part of the book there are reasons to be grateful. For example, has it ever occured to you that, with the widespread use of the “morning after” pill, the whole question of abortion will be removed from the public arena to the private? Because who will care what people do to themselves in their own homes? This chemical procedure will take politics out of the abortion debate.

There is plenty to wince at, rail against, laugh about or just enjoy in Good Boys.

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