Women, for Richard Rodriguez, are the world’s saving grace. “Darling,” his first book in a decade, is among other things his obeisance to women and their tendency to brighten and improve the world. “I cannot imagine my freedom as a homosexual man without women in veils,” he writes. “Women in red Chanel. Women in flannel nightgowns. Women in their mirrors. Women saying, Honey-bunny. Women saying, We’ll see. Women saying, If you lay one hand on that child, I swear to God I will kill you. Women in curlers. Women in high heels. Younger sisters, older sisters; women and girls.”
The 10 essays of this “spiritual autobiography” are beautiful examples of thinking something through with not just intelligence and verve but wholeheartedness and compassion. Rodriguez is like a Buddhist Susan Sontag, but Catholic. This book is exciting for what it proposes, subtly, to do: to reintroduce “radiant nouns” into the national conversation. To climb up off the information highway in search of more meaningfully broad-minded investigations. To approach the question of being religious without being sanctimonious.
Rodriguez’s writing has always been a heady mix of cultural research, transcendental questing and impressively ingrained feeling for other people. He is among the very best essayists of his generation (he was born during World War II).
The new book covers a lot of ground: deserts, cities, civilizations, California (in an essay called “Disappointment”). Rodriguez is fascinated by the shared desert God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and his thoughts take him back to the old epic movies he grew up seeing in Sacramento movie palaces. “Roman days. We entered the Alhambra through a shaded garden. We walked among palms, alongside a reflecting pool, to reach the box office. On the screen, we saw sandal-shod feet, greaves laced to the bulging calves of Roman soldiers, raised standards of the legions of Caesar. A soundtrack of French horns and kettledrums bellowed like a herd of bullocks as marching troops kicked up the dust of some god-forsaken outback of empire.”
He reports from Israel. “I have come to the Holy Land because the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians, the God of the Muslims — a common God — revealed Himself in this desert. My curiosity about an ecology that joins three religions dates from September 11, 2001, from prayers enunciated in the sky over America on that day.” He also writes movingly about Las Vegas, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Lance Armstrong, gay marriage, the loss of printed newspapers, and (as he did in his 2002 book, “Brown: The Last Discovery of America”) the color of khaki, chocolate and Cole Porter’s study.
Rodriguez insists that the Catholic Church must and should accommodate him — a sophisticated man whose Christian belief is canny, edgy and deeply challenged by the church’s long history of hypocrisy, greed and social conservatism. The church, he insists, is his, it is where he belongs (and in recent remarks, Pope Francis has been encouragingly welcoming and inclusive). Rodriguez has been very free to roam the globe in search of meaning, pleasure and comfort. But he enjoys the daftness of the church; it’s like family to him: embarrassing but solid.
It is the women of the church who rescue it from total masculine sordidness, and Rodriguez venerates them: The book is dedicated to the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; there’s also a cameo by Sister Boom Boom of the San Francisco drag order Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Despite the church’s 2012 fracas with nuns who “promote ‘radical feminist themes’ and who remain silent regarding their Excellencies’ positions,” Rodriguez says, “the Church — I say the Church but I mean the male church — is rather shy in the presence of women, even as the God of scripture is rather shy of women. God will make a bond of friendship with a hairy patriarch. God interferes with Sarah through her husband. God courts Mary by an angel.” Rodriguez stays with the church because it is “a feminine act, intuition, and pronoun: The Christian Church is the sentimental branch of human theology. (I mean that as praise.)”
In the opening essay, he teases out the nuances of his title, which he views as the perfect endearment. The young Noel Coward, he says, “imagined a leisured class of world-weary sophisticates whose conversations were rank with ‘darlings.’ ‘Darlings’ didn’t mean anything. ‘Darlings’ were objective-nominative vagaries, starlings in a summer sky. ‘Darlings’ were sequined grace notes flying by at the famous Coward clip.” But Rodriguez knew early on that the word spoke to him: “Something about this personal-classical, asexual, theatrical form of address interested me, pleased me. I studied how to use it.”
His studies have paid off, for him and for us, his readers; these magnificent “personal-classical” essays will be read and enjoyed for many decades to come, darling.
A Spiritual Autobiography
By Richard Rodriguez
Viking. 235 pp. $26.95