A Catholic Writer Who Does Not Turn Away

Deal W. Hudson
April 20, 2009

In recent years, the phrase “Catholic writer” has become highly problematic. Some bestow it like a laurel on the brow of anyone who writes about pious Catholics who manage, through thick and thin, to follow all the rules. Others use the label in a nostalgic (and laudable) quest to find the next O’Connor, Percy, or Greene. Still, others habitually track down Catholic “themes” in fiction by an author whom they discover attends Mass or was educated by nuns.

Every now and then the real thing comes along: a Catholic writer who writes well enough to satisfy literate readers who judge fiction by the canons of fiction, not theology. It’s a bonus when that Catholic writer occasionally peoples his narratives with familiar characters – like the sexually confused ex-seminarian or the young, excessively certain priest. You recognize him not by his profession of faith, or his attention to clergy and rituals, but by his well-crafted works of imagination infused with a sacramental intelligence.

Such a writer is the 40-year-old Andrew McNabb, whose first book of short stories is titled The Body of This: Stories.

McNabb’s name should ring a bell among well-read Catholics: Yes, he is related to the famous Dominican Rev. Vincent McNabb, who rivaled his friends Chesterton and Belloc as a stylist. “He was my great-grandfather’s father’s brother, Patrick, one of eleven, who came to the States,” McNabb told me on the phone from Portland, Maine, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, and their four young children.

Both of McNabb’s daughters suffered strokes before they were born and now have cerebral palsy. Working at home, writing early in the morning and late at night, he is the primary caregiver for all the children. “I started writing fulltime ten years ago, ever since I married Sharon,” he told me. McNabb had struck it rich in his 20s, living in New York City and working for a Russian trading company that shipped millions of dollars of poultry and beef to Russia. “Everyone wanted a piece of us,” he told me. His success allowed him to move from Greenwich Village to the affluent East 59th off Sutton Place – where he suddenly decided to give it all up.

McNabb took a seven-month break in Ireland, where he started writing, something he knew he wanted to do since he had studied for his MBA at NYU. Upon his return at age 30, he married his wife, who was then a junior partner at Smith Barney. They moved to Newport, Rhode Island, so she could work in Providence, they could begin their family, and McNabb could continue to write. After nearly four years, the McNabbs moved to the West End of Portland, where many of his stories are set.

It wasn’t a stretch: McNabb grew up not far from Portland, in North Reading, Massachusetts, where he was one of five children (including two who were adopted) in a practicing Catholic family. He studied business at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst before leaving for his eight giddy years in New York. Always a devout, practicing Catholic, McNabb admits to having “been more sinful than the next person – sex, drugs, the kind of people I kept company with.” When I observe that some of this experience shows up in his stories, he comments, “This has been my experience. To write any other way would be wrong.”

McNabb’s stories are not going to be read aloud on EWTN anytime soon. Impure thoughts abound – not just sexual, but violent and spiteful. Take this description of a man fuming with rage as he watches a woman, a widow he knows, waiting for her dog to leave an “extrusion” in his front yard:

This wasn’t the Balkans where neighbors turned murderous overnight, but Portland, Maine, where it was the case, as with any other place humans lived, that at a moment’s notice you could circle in and find what was easiest to despise about just about anyone.

Note the totally unexpected meditation that follows, as the man decides to go out and clean it up:

The widow and the others – the cowards who came and left under the cover of darkness, the hypocrites who bagged only when someone else was about – they provided for him this necessary task, this debasement, this penance, and for that he felt the tiniest bit of gratitude.

This is typical of McNabb’s stories; what makes them so involving and moving is his attention to moments in life where many of us instinctively look away or simply turn off our thoughts to get through unpleasantness.

Most of his stories are short – some as brief as 500 words. “This is just how it happened for me,” he explains. He finished two “crappy novels” but is working on a memoir, Daddy’s Hope, about being a stay-at-home father with kids who have health issues.

Many of McNabb’s characters are frail, sickly, and elderly. One of the most touching, almost haunting, stories – “Their Bodies, Their Selves” – alone makes McNabb’s collection of thirty tales a must read, and there are many others that rise to its level. “It’s What It Feels Like,” the only long story in the volume, about an estranged husband who has won the lottery, has an ending worthy of O. Henry. “The King of the Tables” follows an elderly man with a schoolboy crush as he competes for his beloved’s attention while serving meals in the parish basement.

McNabb’s stories juxtapose the pure and the impure, the violent and the tender, the body and the spirit – yet there is nothing in them suggesting a Gnostic dualism. The unity of his stories is achieved by drawing our attention to a dogged mortality we would rather ignore. The Body of This is a sustained, poetic meditation on one character’s message to her injured husband: “There you are, and here I am.”

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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