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"Fire Sermon" Is an Intense Meditation on Love, Sex, Desire and Religion

Jamie Quatro

“Fire Sermon.” By Jamie Quatro. Grove Press. 208 pages. $24.00.
Editor’s note: Jamie Quatro will sign copies of “Fire Sermon” at 5 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 23, at Square Books.
Near the end of her first novel, “Fire Sermon,” Jamie Quatro demands: “What if (Brothers, Sisters, bear with me) the institution of marriage was given to us as an intentional breeding ground for illicit desire? What if God, in his Divine wisdom – infinite, unfathomable – ordained marriage not primarily for the propagation of the species, nor to ensure the cultural and financial stability of the particular societies in which it flourishes, but to place us in a condition in which erotic desire might thrive?
“… Apart from the Law we are all addicts. Apart from the Law there is no Eros. But obedient to the Law – faithful inside it – we learn to long acutely. And longing, unsatisfied, lifts the gaze. Flesh to spirit, material to immaterial. Forbidden love as tutelage.”
Two passions drive “Fire Sermon” – sex and religion – and two narratives march across its pages. One follows Quatro’s protagonist, Maggie Ellmann, across 25 years of marriage. Maggie has abandoned one doctorate in comparative literature and a second doctorate on theology and poetry, but she has maintained an interest in Christian writers in post-Christian America.
The other narrative tracks Maggie as she introduces herself to a poet, James Abbott, in a relationship that becomes a brief love affair. (“He reminds me a little of Hopkins,” she muses. “Recalibrating the language of faith. Assimilating the old ways of speaking about God and moving beyond them.”)
Scattered among these scenes, as choric commentaries, are dialogues that read like transcripts of therapy sessions. They may be conversations between Maggie and God, or character and author, or Head and Heart.
Quatro’s writing has notable virtues. The book is told in vignettes, and every scene is vivid. Her dialogue rings true to life. When Quatro writes about sex, she conveys not only passion and sensation, but also a sense of physical intimacy. She strikes a fine balance in describing Maggie’s husband, Thomas, in whom the carapace of a handsome investment banker masks a creepy, smaller-than-life doppelganger with a fondness for marital aids. She observes keenly the milestones of a professor’s life (the poem in The New Yorker, the visiting appointment that dovetails with a marital separation).
“Fire Sermon” has the defects of its qualities. Quatro is an intense writer, always working at fever pitch. Her characters may dwell on sex and religion because they do not worry about money; early on, conveniently, Maggie inherits a million dollars. Crucial scenes make much of the attack on the World Trade Center, too much in a book about characters who watch this on TV from Middle Tennessee. (Readers who handled the carnage of 9/11 in real life will find this a dubious cultural appropriation).
In the end, Quatro suggests, peace is waiting “on the far side of fidelity.” 
“What hurt them through life, after her affair – the volatility, quickness to anger, the startling tugs toward random bodies, full breasts underneath a loose shirt, glimpse of hair above a navel, outline of pectorals; even, during a conversation with a friend, the swell of lips around certain words; how she would get close to the fire and retreat, crucify those sudden onsets of lust for something or someone else, contain, contain, then give what was left to her husband (although many days it was just her, alone on the marital bed, sometimes four, six times in a row) – this passion is now what saves her, and him.” 
The idea that one moment of illicit passion might sustain a marriage rhymes with the idea that one moment of conversion can save a soul. That idea has always found believers. And Quatro’s ability to contain a blaze of images within the bounds of such a sentence may rhyme with the steadiness that sustains a marriage or a faith.

Allen Boyer, a native of Oxford, is the Book Editor of HottyToddy.com.

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