Even though I’ve already suggested one book by Jon Hassler (Dear James), since he has recently passed away, I would like to honor him with another entry. All of Hassler’s works are eminently worth reading, but three of my personal favorites are The Dean’s List, Simon’s Night, and North of Hope.
The Dean’s List is the first Hassler novel I read. It is an immensely funny depiction of academic life from the point of view of a weary administrator (who’d rather be a faculty member). Edwards lives with his mother whose death he must soon face; he frequently runs into his ex-wife with whom he still has a friendly and loving relationship. He occasionally runs into the friends of his teaching days (whose adventures are recounted in Hassler’s earlier novel Rookery Blues). But something is missing from his life, something that’s been missing since his father was struck by lightening when Leland was fourteen. He’s the dean of a mediocre university with a more than mediocre president. His mother, a local radio personality, outshines him and controls him. Then arrives on campus the noted poet Richard Falcon (a sort of Robert Frost-ish kind of poet) whom Leland is supposed to keep track of. Chaos, hilarity and pathos ensue. And in the process his life changes.
Simon’s Night begins at what Simon Shea assumes is the end of his life. He’s eighty now and having difficulty living by himself. He has lived alone since his wife abandoned him years ago. Simon’s commits himself into the Norman Home for the Elderly, a place filled with the most amusing old people ever described by a warm and loving author. These are not caricatures or stereotypes of crazy old people – although they are to some extent crazy. They are very much real people with faults, annoying habits, and deep, sympathetic souls. Much of Simon’s story is his remembrances, and these flashbacks contain one of the most beautiful descriptions of making a choice between, not really good and evil, but between a good and The Good ever written. Simon is ultimately faced with another choice in this novel – a choice between wasting his life or beginning it anew.
North of Hope is perhaps Hassler’s darkest novel, and it is also perhaps his masterpiece. There are still amusing characters, however, such as the old parish priest who feels compelled to spend most of his day praying for all the people he once said he would pray for and all the souls of the dead he has ever buried through the years. He questions at what point a person can stop praying for another, but since he has no answer, he continues in his duty though it leaves him little time for anything else. Father Healy, the assistant pastor, originally chose the priesthood because it was his mother’s dying wish when he was eleven. When this familial legend comes into question, his whole vocation comes into question. He is the one in this novel faced with the choice – the choice between love and Love. He must choose between a vocation that has recently left him empty and weary and a woman whom he has loved since a teenager and who now desperately needs him.
We have lost a great storyteller in the passing of Jon Hassler, one who so eloquently and sympathetically delineated our choices between good and the greater good. Choosing between good and evil isn’t all that hard, but choosing between two loves can be.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And may perpetual light shine upon him.
Requiescat in Pacem.