Images of backyard shrines to the Blessed Virgin adorn the pages of many Catholic novelists. They are a setting device that authors use to plant familiar images in the mind of the reader.
But for William Boyle, an emerging acclaimed author from Brooklyn, the statues are used as a motif to illustrate the setting, mood and general “Brooklyn-ness” of his four published novels.
Born in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, Boyle is a “literary novelist” who is to Brooklyn what Bruce Springsteen is to New York/New Jersey. Both artists, raised in the Catholic faith, focus on themes of despair, longing and silent suffering in their fiction/music.
Boyle’s 2020 novel “City of Margins” conjures up the image of the sanctuary early on as the characters Ava and Don experience an unusual couple. “They count the statues of the Virgin Mary. On a single block, there are 20 in various states of weather-beaten decay. A couple is behind glass, sheltered from the weather.
Don is an underworld thug looking to retreat from a life of bullying and violence, especially after the accidental death of his eldest son. His chance encounter with Ava, an aging divorcee who desperately clings to the comfort of her faith, drives much of the story’s narrative.
While Don has long since given up on his childhood faith, Ava still believes in it and quietly tries to bring her new partner back at least halfway to church. Toward its denouement, Ava urges Don to take a walk through the Old Quarter.
As Boyle describes it, “Ava’s idea is to take them past St. Mary’s School, where they both went, years apart, to reminisce about that a bit more and stand in front of it.” the church. She is there every Saturday evening and every holy day. It’s been like that all his life. …She just wants Don to see the place. (When) someone who has been away from it for so long comes closer, things tend to come back. You see the stained glass windows, you smell the smells, you see the cross, how not to stir something?
All of Boyle’s works to date are set in Brooklyn and populated by blue-collar Catholic characters who sin, suffer, and struggle, but retain a tenuous hold on an enduring faith.
Boyle’s debut novel, titled ‘Gravesend’ after the south-central Brooklyn neighborhood, has been described by critics as a ‘dark’ tale of Brooklynites as they struggle with the pull that the neighborhood exert on them.
But while Boyle’s fiction rarely strays from the detective genre, there is no doubt that his work encompasses a strong element of faith.
Boyle describes himself as both a wandering writer and a “haunted Catholic”.
“I had 12 years of Catholic studies at Bensonhurst, then at Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge. I drifted away from my faith in college, but then entered a period of devotion that lasted into my twenties. The (Catholic) influence has worked its way into my fiction in interesting and complicated ways, as I struggle daily with faith and doubt.
Boyle said much of his writing, particularly in terms of setting and mood, is rooted in his experiences at home parishes, St. Mary Mother of Jesus and Most Precious Blood in Brooklyn.
Boyle’s second novel, “The Lonely Witness,” centers on protagonist Amy Falconetti, a fellow Brooklynite who seeks to serve the church and community despite the misery and limited horizons of working-class existence. . Boyle describes Amy’s epiphany in the middle of the story: “Amy realized how much her life had been devoted to selfish and empty things, and she wanted to help out a little. She knew she was no saint, but she thought she could bring some light into people’s lives.
The author’s nostalgic view of Brooklyn parish life comes to the fore in Boyle’s third novel, “A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself,” his best-selling book to date. This one is an “on the road” story of Rena, the widow of a New York mobster, finding new friendships as she seeks to reconnect with her estranged daughter and grandson. The action is packed into a 48-hour period that includes seductions, gunfights, tight escapes, and unlikely chance encounters.
In this story, Rena realizes that faith and belief do not prevent the occasional risk and recklessness: “Rena finds herself thinking about where she was the morning before. In his usual pew near the tabernacle at Sainte-Marie. The church she has attended all her life, every day since the death of (her husband) Vic. It will be the first day she has missed in a long time. … She (decides) that faith is not about self-restraint and obedience. It’s about strength and desire and defying God. Make things happen. Cut your way. Cut down what needs to be cut down. … You can do bad things and God can still love you.
Despite his Irish-Scottish surname, Boyle is Italian-American in outlook and temperament. His mother was Italian, and she is almost certainly the model from which Boyle portrays his older female characters. Her work clearly evokes a dark Brooklyn ethos that would be difficult to convey in other contexts.
“It’s like a Brooklyn of the soul, or a landscape of spiritual angst,” Boyle said. “What interests me is telling stories of people who feel trapped, who are looking for an identity. The church is there for many of these characters, (and) there is hope to be found in their faith. It’s pure good faith, and on some level at least it’s something I aspire to.
In 2008 Boyle moved to Oxford, Mississippi, once the home of William Faulkner, and a community that has attracted a large number of contemporary novelists. In 2012, Boyle became an adjunct professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, where he specializes in true crime genre.
Boyle’s latest novel, “Shoot the Moonlight Out,” was released in November. Like all of its predecessors, this one is set in Brooklyn and features teenagers and young adults trying to rise above the gloom in their lives.
Boyle understands how early exposure to church influences the life and work of an artist.
“I’m thinking of something that one of my heroes, Martin Scorsese, said in an interview a few years ago,” Boyle said. “(Catholicism is) always within you. My search for faith has never really ended since I became aware that faith exists and started looking at how it comes to life in your daily life. I am also indelibly marked by it, and it is in everything I do.
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Mike Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto.