Crises of Faith 

Nashville native’s novella takes on the Catholic Church’s demons

Nashville native’s novella takes on the Catholic Church’s demons

Herod’s Wife

By Madison Jones

(University of Alabama Press, $17.95, 128 pp.)

For more than four decades, Nashville native Madison Jones has written novels about people caught up in a culture often at odds with religious faith. Questions of sin, guilt and redemption figure prominently in his fiction, and his new book is again the tale of a spiritual wrestling match that takes place in a small Southern town. (Jones told the Scene last week that he had modeled the fictional Lakepoint on Ashland City, Tenn.) Writer Madison Smartt Bell has called the novella “a morality play set in contemporary conditions, with its eye on eternal verities.”

Herod’s Wife centers on Nora, who has recently divorced Wilbur Helton, an unprosperous small-town lawyer, to marry his successful brother Hugh, also an attorney in Lakepoint. Hugh, Nora and Wilbur are all fallen-away Catholics, but that doesn’t stop Hugh from befriending the local parish pastor, John Riley, and taking deeply to heart the priest’s condemnation of his new marriage. When Hugh’s guilt begins to get in the way of Nora’s pleasure, Nora looks for a way to expel Father John from the moral high ground. The scandal she creates implicates even her own teenaged daughter, Jean. Disasters ensue, and for more people than just the innocent priest.

Like Richard Strauss’ renowned opera Salome, which will be performed this coming spring by the Nashville Opera, Herod’s Wife is based on the biblical story of the death of John the Baptist. In the original tale, Herodias is coupled with her husband’s brother, Herod. Herodias hates John the Baptist because John has told Herod that it is unlawful for him to live with his brother’s wife while his brother is still alive. When the beautiful Salome, daughter of Herodias, dances for Herod, he is so smitten that he vows to give her anything she desires. At the behest of her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

One question Jones explores in this book is the ways a rejected faith can affect a former believer, and by extension an entire community. “Usually with Catholics,” Jones said last week in an interview, “at least most 'cradle’ Catholics, [faith] sticks pretty hard.” Hugh can’t shake his childhood faith, but his wife sees it as nothing but “a monstrous, irrational thing,” according to Jones. This spiritual impasse leads eventually to an outbreak of violence involving racism, abortion and arson in the formerly placid Lakepoint.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jones had completed the manuscript of Herod’s Wife before the sexual scandals of the recent past first broke in the Catholic Church. “It did happen to fit,” Jones said, but “it was just a funny coincidence.” For him, Herod’s Wife is no more (nor less) topical than any of his 10 other books: It’s “a principle theme of mine, really, the condition of a society that has lost its roots and spiritual origins and sense of direction.”

Jones was born in 1925 in a house on Chesterfield Street, was educated in Nashville’s public schools and later worked on his father’s farm in Cheatham County, an experience he’s grateful for, he says, “because it supplied me with a whole world that I didn’t know much about, and a lot of people I came to admire.” When he was a student at Vanderbilt, Jones came under the influence of the Fugitive writers, particularly the poet Donald Davidson. He later earned a master’s degree from the University of Florida, studying under another neo-Fugitive, Andrew Lytle. After a brief stint on the faculty of the University of Tennessee, Jones was, until his recent retirement, writer-in-residence at Auburn University.

Despite his long teaching career, Jones doesn’t urge talented young people to become writers. “The best student I ever had...wrote very brilliantly, but he never knew what to do with it. He got drunk all the time. I think he’s straightened out now, but writing just ruined him. I don’t think anybody ought to be encouraged to write. I think he ought to write because he wants to and is willing to take the risk.”

For Jones, though, that risk has paid off in an old age filled with important literary awards: He’s won both Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, as well as the T.S. Eliot Award, the Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction (for Nashville, 1864) and the Harper Lee Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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