Sex and Faith Overheat in Jamie Quatro’s ‘Fire Sermon’

Posted January 1, 2018 4:55 p.m. EST

Jamie Quatro’s fiction makes you want to hit the gym. Her women seek transcendence in exertion. They go for runs, scan the woods for bike trails, consult personal trainers. In her first book, a mesmerizing collection of stories titled “I Want to Show You More” (2013), running was so intensely evoked that Runner’s World magazine dispatched a profile writer to the author’s home.

Exercise isn’t the only thing in Quatro’s work that’s vivid. She writes about infidelity and Catholicism, about married women who long to transgress and often do. Her first book was hot to the touch for its divine, earthly and intellectual acuities. Reading it, you felt echoes of Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene. You also felt: This writer, born in San Diego and now living in Georgia, is constructing a new skyscraper on the literary horizon.

Quatro is here now with “Fire Sermon,” her second book and first novel. It’s a disappointment. At best it’s a holding pattern. Once again the protagonist is a married woman in a sexually dead marriage. She questions her faith; she works out; she falls into an affair with a man in another city.

“Fire Sermon” is, in other words, one of Quatro’s short stories extended to novel length. Yet somehow this saga lacks a novel’s amplitude. The narrator, Maggie, is a writer. Even she seems aware that this thin if fervid book brings little that’s fresh to the theme of illicit sexual desire.

At one point Maggie says, “I imagine writing all this down and giving the manuscript to my agent.” She imagines her bored agent replying, “This has been done to death.” And: “I won’t be able to sell this.”

Maggie and her lover, James, are close to insufferable. He’s a formalist poet who has the words “sight” and “vision” tattooed on alternate wrists. His poems, written in “hyper-regular iambic meter,” investigate “the apocalyptic suffering created by a market economy.”

She’s a woman who grew up lovely and happy and sheltered. As an adult this happiness is given a booster shot: She inherits a million dollars from a rich uncle. She became a writer after abandoning an academic career, including an unwritten dissertation on “postcolonial reinterpretations of the Genesis story.” Her husband is an agnostic. She is starved for religious talk.

Maggie and James are both 45; their children have all left for college. The adulterous couple share a peanut allergy and a fondness for the Christian mystics and “Moby-Dick.” They have ecstatic, guilt-ridden sex in a far-flung hotel room. As James Dickey told us in one of his poems: “guilt is magical.”

For these lovers, foreplay includes dialogue like, “Do you read much apophatic literature?” Maggie conflates sexual and religious desire, sometimes to memorable effect. More often, these meditations set off the pretentiousness alarm that rests, like a smoke detector, at the top of one’s mind. You may finally have to cover the thing with plastic wrap and a rubber band.

During sex with James, she reports how “at the deepest point of penetration the room fell away and the sky tore open and we were swept up into electric galaxies.” This sounds less like one of Erica Jong’s zipless romps than technical plans still on Elon Musk’s drafting table.

“Balanced on this precipice we could blow open eternity,” Maggie thinks as she and James consider having sex. Their lives will “explode outward in a single, effortless, life-changing orgasm.” Indeed there are so many sexual and pre-sexual explosions that reading this book is like learning about one of the terrible disasters that result when a blaze starts in a fireworks store.

The tortured intensity of Maggie’s longing does remind the reader of what’s lost when sex is unhitched from religion. Young lovers now “hook up,” a healthy phrase, if as wan as a piece of Dover sole. How many will know the illicit black-mass pleasures suggested by a word like fornication?

And what of Thomas, Maggie’s husband? He’s a good father, we are told, and handsome. He reminds an acquaintance of Maggie’s of actor Patrick Dempsey. But this McDreamy is in finance and, as Maggie writes to James in an email, “I find the language of business inaccessible.”

Thomas is frustrated by the couple’s bed-death, but you understand why he turns Maggie off. He is terrible at taking hints. Early in the novel he hopes to rekindle passion by giving Maggie a flesh-colored vibrator that’s “realistic-looking, veined and arched, a switch at its base.” She despises it.

Before long he’s shyly back with a “tiny pink pebble vibrator” that’s “shaped like a kidney bean.” She resents this one, too. Finally, incredibly, he returns with a long sleek silver dildo in a drawstring bag. “Tell me that isn’t what I think,” she says.

Maggie can’t believe it. Neither can the reader. We start to wonder if Thomas will next burst into the house on a giant inflatable penis like the one Mick Jagger rode onstage during the Rolling Stones’ 1975 tour.

Quatro made compression work for her in the stories collected in “I Want to Show You More.” In her first novel, more is less. Her themes expand but don’t noticeably take on grain or deepen.

Maggie is among those people who carry their faith not like a shawl worn around the shoulders but like something heavy that must be carried with a piece of twine. It cuts the fingers; it must frequently be set down.

There’s real humanity in this novel, and there are insights about love and longing. Quatro is a gifted writer. But “Fire Sermon” ultimately reminds the reader of Emma Bovary’s observation that there is “in adultery all the banality of marriage.”

Publication Notes:

‘Fire Sermon’

By Jamie Quatro

208 pages. Grove Press. $24.