The Wolf Leaps, by Chandler Brossard
10€, 142 page pocketbook
Sure, Christ Fucked, but Was He on Top?
An Introduction by Zachary Tanner
I first read Did Christ Make Love? in February of 2021 in the middle of a six-month study of Brossard that I was undertaking while writing my introductions to the corona\samizdat reprints of Brossard’s two mammoth novels, Wake Up. We’re Almost There and As the Wolf Howls at My Door. In light of my scholarly endeavor, I bought all the Brossard I could get my hands on, my copy of Did Christ Make Love? (1973) a signed HCDJ 1st ED which I purchased for $59.65, which was the only copy I could find on the internet. (As I write this introduction, I can find absolutely no copies online.) I read it over the course of an afternoon, most likely over three or four tequila-ice-limes, for I was drinking heavily while on antidepressants at the time, which I would not mention but to note that the liberated imagination of Chandler Brossard’s fiction was essential to my recovery.
At this point, I was about nine months into my daily ongoing conversation with Rick Harsch, who had introduced me to Brossard but a few months before when he asked me to introduce his paperback edition of Wake Up. Like I said, I read this book in one inebriated sitting, not counting the trips from my shed to the kitchen and back, and when I put it down, I likely sent a rough snapshot of my blurry, sweating mason jar next to the book with something along the lines of “not true what they say, Brossard can write a plot, and better than the rest, as well as the Bard himself.” I gushed about the book until it was time to move on with my day, thinking little of it but of my next drink, which would taste sweeter thanks to the afterglow of reading a novel, but within the hour, Rick had written the Estate:
The person working on the introduction to Wolf has told me that we should publish Did Christ Make Love. Can I have your permission?
Soon after, Rick wrote Steven Moore (who had been providing guest editorial directions on behalf of his friend Chandler for us since we reprinted Raging Joys, Sublime Violations) about our edition of this book and he said:
“That’s great news about Did Christ Make Love?, though I hope you will use Brossard’s original and preferred title, The Wolf Leaps.”
He also passed along a copy of a Foreword he wrote “for an edition that was supposed to come out 20 years ago but didn’t,” which has remained unpublished until now, in which he refers to The Wolf Leaps as “the least known of Brossard’s novels, the scarcest on the used-book market, and the only one not to have been reprinted as a paperback in his lifetime.”
Why is that the case? Beyond the fact that all of Brossard’s work was and has remained neglected? Does it have to do with “the only crime worse than marrying your mother and murdering your father?” Or because it’s a novel in which white merry wives of priests invite sapphic black parishioners up to their apartment under the guise of a half-baked pretense, and, as they are tempting them into hardly verbally consensual sex-massages, have the caucacity to say something like
“And just think how nice it must be, Cynthia, how almost unnaturally blissful, not to be wakened in the middle of the night by the screams of people being mugged or raped or beaten to death in a race riot, Mm, heaven.”
What is the crime worse than Oedipus’s? Why, the star-crossed trysting of a white priest and a black hustler.
And yes, star-crossed, again, as I drunkenly tried to convey to Rick with my choice of the word Bard, for it is the dramatism of this novel that makes it a novel novel. In his note “To the Reader” in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:
In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is their royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.
What is the crux in this crucifix of a novel but the moment that Rojas later recalls as Harrison giving “the distinct impression he was carrying on a most impassioned and urgent interior dialogue with his two warring selves.”
When on the pulpit, our white Jesus has his epiphany amidst some of the most sublime writing in the entire novel:
“I wonder how many of us really know what it means to believe, what the vast implications are of believing. I suspect that many of us either have the wrong understanding of this, or at least are not as actually involved in it as we should be. For example, what does it mean when we say that we believe in another person? Does this mean merely that we know this person won’t lie to us, or try to steal our money? That we are sure this person will be nice to us? If that is all we mean, then we might as well give up. Because belief in another human being means infinitely more than that. It means that we accept his infinite capacities for becoming an extraordinary person, for rising above the limitations we see before us. Belief, real belief, between two people is a kind of magic. With this God-given magic there is nothing they cannot do, nothing they cannot feel, nothing they cannot create. A human paradise comes into existence, a realm of feeling and liberty, without which we are nothing but self-deluded sleepwalkers.”
What more fertile consciousness moment for Shakespearean self-overhearing than the sermonizer on the mount? The beauty of this book is self-evident.
My initial enthusiasm for the jouissance of The Wolf Leaps came from the place in my heart that cherishes William T. Vollmann’s O’Farrell Street hagiographies. And from a narratological standpoint, Did Christ Make Love? (for as such did I know it) had it all: striking monologue-based, flashback-driven non-linearity condensed into a zip-bang tragicomic structure, fluid peripeteia and a delayed anagnorisis, the libertine duplicity of a cast of characters each thinking of other lovers than the ones they are obligated to love, with several dying from their taboo affections while we see directly inside each of their idiosyncratic thoughtspeech peregrinations according to the narrator’s whim, and ultimately, by it all, the soft, full frontal love that is so uncommon in the 21st century, of which wrote Ovid, Petronius, and Apuleius, whose timeless eroticism Brossard as Bard seemed to adopt under the guise of modernism, i.e. the quoted monologue. As with The Double View, The Wolf Leaps represented a wild diversion from early Brossard that paved the way for later Brossard while they both remained distinct from the rest for their mature flirtation with free indirect style and clever plotting. As Dorrit Cohn writes in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness:
A monologuist in a third-person context is not the uniquely dominant voice in the text we read. He is always more or less subordinated to the narrator, and our evaluation of what he says to himself remains tied to the perspective (neutral or opiniated, friendly or hostile, empathic or ironic) into which the narrator places him for us.
I doubt more need be said to bait some wayfaring scholar out there to unpack this thing for us once and for all, but until such time please take a long look at the following two ephemera I have created (with obvious limitations in the approximations of the latter as such considerations as characters’ ages and therefore the sequence of their individual adolescent escapades are unknowable to me; I have done the best I can with what I have in order to make this unique novel’s idiosyncratic complexity evident at a glance):
Leslie—wife of Harrison
Cynthia—lover of wife of Harrison
Alba—waitress-turned-hustler (thanks to Dancer)
GG, V, Y, R, H, E, A, B, C, D, F, G, I, J, L, Q, CC, M, N, O, U, P, BB, S, T, W, X, FF, Z, AA, DD, EE, HH, II, JJ
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, GG, HH, II, JJ
A 20-YEAR-OLD FOREWORD
“Necessity makes men misapprehend / Hunger makes the wolf leap from the woods,” wrote the medieval French poet François Villon in Le Testament. Chandler Brossard adapted Villon’s phrase for this provocative novel about an Episcopalian priest driven by necessity and sexual hunger to leave the safe woods of his parish for a walk on the wild side. Written in 1961–62 with the title The Wolf Leaps, it failed to find a publisher at the time; a dozen years would pass before someone offered to take it on, a publisher mostly of educational materials called Bobbs-Merrill, whose editor insisted that the title be changed before they would publish it. It appeared in 1973 as Did Christ Make Love?—a question one of the characters asks late in the novel—and even though the Village Voice called it Brossard’s best book to date, it quickly sank from sight. It is the least known of Brossard’s novels, the scarcest on the used-book market, and the only one not to have been reprinted as a paperback in his lifetime.
This is a shame, because The Wolf Leaps (Brossard’s preferred title) is intriguingly different in many ways from Brossard’s other novels. Its ethnic cast of characters and West Side Story setting is unique in his canon, and it is the only novel of his to focus explicitly on religion and the nature of religious belief. (He would return to this theme in his final work, Shifty Sacred Songs, a collection of what might be called postmodern psalms.) His previous novel, The Double View (1961), had charted a secular pilgrim’s progress from hell through purgatory, leaving its protagonist determined to return to that fork in the road where he took a wrong turn, and take a different path. The implicit religious argument of that novel is made explicit in The Wolf Leaps as Alfred Harrison, an Episcopalian priest, suffers a “passion” in both the religious and erotic sense of the word. A parish priest in Spanish Harlem, he is driven by his smarmy wife Leslie (a latent lesbian) into the arms of a mulatto prostitute named Monique. His sexual awakening is twice compared to Saint Paul’s illumination on the road to Damascus as Harrison discovers that fork in the road where sex and religious worship parted ways millennia ago. Harrison attempts to reunite the two by using biblical texts in sexual contexts, thereby reversing the procedure theologians have used on sublime erotica such as the Song of Solomon and the poems of Saint John of the Cross. Like Harry in The Double View, he exults in the liberation of his repressed instincts, but his exultation is short-lived: again like The Double View (in fact, The Wolf Leaps is a doubled view of that nervy novel), the story ends in mass murders, from which only one escapes.
In an autobiographical sense, Harrison tries to escape from the conventional middle-class lifestyle Brossard himself was living in the early 1960s, and which was driving him crazy. Leaving school at age eleven, he had led a bohemian existence until the early 1950s (partly recounted in his 1953 novel The Bold Saboteurs), when he married and soon became the father of two girls. Needing to support them, he first turned to writing potboilers for quick cash—Paris Escort (1953), The Wrong Turn and All Passion Spent (both 1954)—and several short-story anthologies (into which he always slipped a few of his own stories, usually under pseudonyms). When this proved too financially unreliable, he became an editor at Look magazine in 1956, turning out photo-essays on a variety of mundane subjects and commuting to work from Ridgewood, New Jersey. For this bold saboteur, now pushing forty, working for Look and living in the suburbs was a living death.
As it happens, one of the articles he wrote for Look dealt with an Episcopalian priest’s work with juvenile delinquents (“Father Myers: He Never Gives Up on Anybody,” Look, 13 October 1959). A few years later, when Brossard decided to write a novel about the sterility of upper-middle-class white society compared to the vitality of ethnic cultures, he drew upon that essay for his principal character, and then surrounded Father Harrison and his anemic wife Leslie with a handful of vibrant blacks and Hispanics.
The novel’s small cast of characters has little in common with each other, and Brossard cleverly underscores the radical conflicts between them by shifting styles as each character takes the stage. Mixing narration and interior monologue, the author clothes his characters in language that mirrors the psycho-sociological reality each inhabits. In the opening chapter, for example, both Harrison’s academic background and his psychological conflicts are conveyed in windy language using a paratactic sentence structure that frequently fractures itself with parenthetical qualifications. (After his sexual experience, his language loosens up as much as he does.) The second chapter introduces José Rojas, a street-smart young welfare worker and a parishioner of Harrison’s, in a jazzy style appropriate to his playful outlook on life. He reads, and occasionally quotes from, Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938), and in fact he previews the liberated narrative voice Brossard would use in his later fiction. Chapter three features Leslie in a coy, saccharine style reminiscent of the Gerty MacDowell chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses. The last major character, a pimp named Dancer, has his own language of “viciously thin corrupted words.” The close juxtaposition of these clashing language codes heightens the various religious, sexual, and racial tensions throughout the book, giving it more the quality of a play than a novel. (It is worth noting that Brossard was heavily involved in playwrighting at the time.) These exercises in multiple points of view would eventually lead to the communal narrative voices and rampant heteroglossia of his two longest, most ambitious novels, Wake Up. We’re Almost There (1971) and As the Wolf Howls at My Door (1992).
Uniting these diverse conversational styles is a careful and consistent use of imagery. Fleeting glimpses of Eden are caught by way of the nature and garden imagery in the sexual scenes, but animal imagery dominates this gritty picture of the urban jungle. Rats, lizards, snakes, dogs, jackals, cockroaches, alligators, and of course wolves infest the novel. After a brutal gang-rape, for example, the boys leave “much as beasts of prey will ultimately pad heavily away from the half-devoured body of a gazelle, innocent, unsuspecting, which, wandered from its herd, they have brought down.” In addition, a variety of figurative demons, hunchbacks, dwarves, gargoyles, dragons, trolls, ghouls, and ghosts haunt the pages of this nightmare world.
“A razor-slice of life in the raw from Chandler Brossard’s disturbing new novel, The Wolf Leaps” is how the headnote read to a selection published in Nugget in April 1962 (a men’s magazine edited by Brossard’s friend Seymour Krim). The novel remains as sharp and raw forty* years later.