Bookmark: A book about faith and so much more

To call "The Variations" (Henry Holt) a book about faith is to say both too much and too little.

It's too much because, if you take the broader perspective, every book is about faith; indeed, every book is an expression of faith.

Every book is the tangible manifestation of the conviction that other people — people the author will likely never meet — care about the same ideas that matter to the author. You can't write a book without being a believer — a believer in books, if nothing else.

Yet it's also too little to say about "The Variations" because this beautiful, enthralling novel is about so many other things as well.

Yes, its central character is a Catholic priest, the troubled Father Dominic, and crucial scenes focus on his search for signs that God is still on the job and hasn't given up on us in disgust, moving on to another, more promising world. But it's also about music, sex, loneliness, death and blogging.

So to call it a book about faith is like calling an exquisite cathedral a thing with a roof and four walls: technically accurate, perhaps, but not the whole truth by a long shot.

"The Variations" is the first novel by John Donatich, director of Yale University Press. Like Yale, the novel is set in New Haven, Conn. Father Dominic's church presides over a neighborhood where decades of poverty have taken a dire toll.

"Empty bottles of beer and cheap whiskey littered the corners of the lot; Dominic turned out early every Sunday morning to clear them before Mass. How he hated the clink of glass against glass in the garbage bag, hollow and carnal like a laugh track."

But Dominic also appreciates "the tired maturity of the city's faith — the kind that knew better than to reach a conclusion, that believes despite the contrary evidence, despite the improbability of redemption. His church was needed here."

Those passages offer a sense not only of the book's themes — a church struggling for relevancy in benighted lives, a priest's hard work in the face of his discontent — but also of Donatich's writing style. His sentences are fluid yet succinct. They deal with complicated topics such as faith and doubt, God and godlessness, but they do so with brevity, grace and specificity.

The author is more inclined to describe the clink of empty liquor bottles in a trash bag, a sound we all recognize, than the swish and flutter of angel wings, a sound that only some claim to hear. Thus "The Variations" speaks to all: Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Muslim. Believer or nonbeliever.

Dominic is at a crossroads. His church is scheduled for closing by the diocese, and he wonders if perhaps he ought to shut down too — as a priest, that is. He has always had a fascination with the secular life, with its fast cars and its sexual freedom.

He writes a blog with his spiritual musings that catches the eye of a New York magazine editor, a woman he soon becomes attracted to, but before he can decide if it's time to take off the priest's collar and see what he's been missing, he argues online with critics of a deity: "Your legitimate gripe," he writes, "is actually with the Church, which really in the end is nothing more than the social management of the wildness of spirit institutionalized within religion."

The novel also includes a mesmerizing subplot about the church's organist, a young African-American musician who is learning to play the Goldberg Variations under the tutelage of Signora Lotito, an elderly woman with fierce opinions about craft: "Inspiration, she tried to show him, was the end of hard work, not the beginning."

Johann Sebastian Bach's elegant work — an aria and 30 variations, first published in 1741 — was the wellspring, Donatich explained recently from his Yale office. "The book started out as a nonfiction book about the Goldberg Variations." But he decided to make his search a spiritual one instead of a scholarly one: "I wanted to write about someone who gets up every day and tries to do good. What would that be like, to live the spiritual life?"

Donatich was raised in the Catholic faith, he said, but no longer practices.

"I am somewhat like Dominic, a person for whom the spiritual impulse has outlived its day-to-day utility. Realizing that is really a tragic moment."

His novel required many years to write, he added, during "early mornings and weekends," the time not devoted to his work at the press, which he has led since 2003.

While Yale now publishes each work on paper and digitally, Donatich's own work is created in a low-tech way: He writes in longhand, with a pencil. "I like the friction," he said. "I like the sense of something wearing down, making progress.

"Whether you're reading on a Kindle or a book in your hand — that's almost immaterial," he added, chuckling at the pun. "You're still engaged in a conversation, one mind to another."

Literature, even literature that ostensibly is not concerned with matters of faith, has a spiritual dimension, said Donatich, who is already at work on a second novel. "The beautiful solitude of reading reminds me of meditation and prayer. There's another intelligence, calling you out."

JULIA KELLER, the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

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