By Patrick Sullivan
THERE ARE, it's now clear, two Anne Lamotts. The first we know very well: She's the acclaimed author of such finely crafted novels as Rosie and Crooked Little Heart--fiction that sears, soothes, and surprises with its keen eye and wry sympathy for human weakness. This Lamott has also graced the world with Bird by Bird, one of the better books on the shelves about the art of writing.
And then there's the other Anne Lamott, the author of the new Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Random House; $23).
The book, Lamott's third autobiographical work, chronicles the author's long journey toward religion. Raised in a profoundly secular Marin County household, tempted by a number of belief systems during her troubled life, Lamott at last found a home for her spiritual longings at a small interracial Christian church. Traveling Mercies is the story of how she washed ashore in that unlikely place.
The trouble is, this rambling, self-absorbed book is much more about Lamott than it is about spirituality, religious community, or anything else. Like Woody Allen, Lamott is well known for a certain brand of lovable narcissism, but here she has concentrated so obsessively on herself that all else fades into the background.
Early on, Lamott sets us up for disappointment by writing well. The powerful introductory chapter paints a vivid picture of her childhood, her relationship with her atheistic, leftist parents, and her small steps toward faith. The compelling climax comes when she describes how, in the fearful grip of drug and alcohol addiction, she stumbled in a hangover fog into St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, where she was slowly won over by the raw spiritual power of the congregation. The reader is hooked: We're ready for a thoughtful exploration of the ramifications of religious faith in a secular age.
We don't get it. Instead, if this book were a broken mirror, shards of glass scattered on the ground, God's left eye would be reflected in one tiny sliver, and Lamott's face would be staring out of every other piece.
Now, granted, this is a deeply personal subject. But do we need an entire chapter on one of Anne's moles, which she thought might be cancerous (it wasn't)? Do we need another on Anne's decision to get dreadlocks? Maybe there is a book that could make this material relevant and compelling, but Traveling Mercies isn't it.
Again and again, the Almighty steps in to save Lamott from such grim disasters as the day her son lost a swim flipper while snorkeling and had to go sit dejectedly on the boat. But Lamott begs God for help, and sure enough--zazaam!--an entertaining mob of seals appears. Then heaven strikes again, though not with a repetitive seal display: "Instead--God must have been in one of her show-offy moods--the next thing we knew, the boat was surrounded on both sides by dolphins, literally hundreds of dolphins leaping out of the waves everywhere you looked. ..."
This is a witty book, and we're never allowed to forget it. Here's the drill: Someone around Lamott does one of those annoying things--like acting superior or voting Republican--that make up so large a part of life's rich tapestry. Then the author details her uncensored inner reaction--usually psychotic rage. Finally, the relentless punch line: "I realize I may be a little sensitive on this topic."
The biggest problem, though, is that Lamott has toured this territory before and done it better. Her relationship with her father, her experiences with dying friends, the difficulty some folks apparently had with her conversion: It all showed up in a different form in Crooked Little Heart. There, through the insulating device of fiction, the reader could focus more on the emotion and less on the writer.
Still, buried deep in Traveling Mercies are some gems: The author's gift shines through in such places as the devastating scene of her father's death. It's enough to give hope to fans of the old Lamott. True talent doesn't fade this quickly. When the author is ready, she'll dazzle us again.
Anne Lamott appears at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 17, at the Veterans Building, 282 S. High St., Sebastopol. Proceeds benefit Western Sonoma County Rural Alliance. Tickets are $8 in advance from Copperfield's Books, $10 at the door. 874-3029.
From the February 11-17, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.