In the middle of the 20th century, the American Roman Catholic experience found classic literary expression in the lives and work of four gifted writers whom a mutual friend dubbed "the school of the Holy Ghost." Three--Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy--were converts. The fourth, Flannery O'Connor, explored the implications of faith by writing stories about Southern "grotesques." All four were loners: Merton became a Trappist monk; O'Connor, stricken with lupus, isolated herself on a farm in Milledgeville, Ga.; Percy became a writer only after settling down in Covington, La.--a "pleasant nonplace," he called it; Day left Greenwich Village (but not N.Y.C.) to establish the Catholic Worker movement.
And yet, as Paul Elie shows in his brilliant new book, "The Soul You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage" (544 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27), their lives and art were fused by what Percy called "a predicament shared in common": how to find a God worthy of belief. And how to connect the demands of art with the demands of religious faith. It wasn't easy. The genius of Elie's book lies in the way he interweaves the writers' lives. Both Merton and Day wrote early autobiographies that elided their most shameful secrets--Merton's youthful fathering of a child and Day's early abortion. O'Connor discovered the real implications of her faith--and the themes of her searing fiction--only after lupus began to exact its painful price. Percy, a physician, turned to writing as a way of diagnosing the human condition. Each had a lively sense of the absurd--and of sin.
Beyond biography, Elie gives us--for the first time--the riveting inside history of literary America's first, and so far only, Catholic moment. This era has heretofore been remembered for the Jewish novel, with its ironic reflections on God's meandering chosen people. Elie's immensely discerning work reminds us that Catholic writers, too, found irony as literary companions in the communion of saints.