Images of backyard shrines to the Blessed Virgin adorn the pages of many Catholic novelists. They are a place-setting device authors use to plant familiar images in the mind of the reader.
But for William Boyle, a Brooklyn-bred author of emerging repute, the statues are used as a motif to illustrate the setting, mood and general “Brooklyn-ness” of his four published novels.
A product of the Bensonhurst district of Brooklyn, Boyle is a “literary crime novelist” who is to Brooklyn what Bruce Springsteen is to the New York/New Jersey vibe. Both artists, raised in the Catholic faith, focus on themes of despair, longing and quiet suffering in their fiction/music.
Boyle’s 2020 novel, “City of Margins,” conjures up the shrine image early on as characters Ava and Don live out an unusual pairing. “They count Virgin Mary statues. On one block alone, there are 20 in varying states of weather-beaten decay. A couple are behind glass, protected from the elements.”
Don is an underworld slugger looking to withdraw from a life of intimidation and violence, especially after the accidental death of his oldest son. His chance meeting with Ava, an aging divorcee clinging desperately to the comforts of her faith, drives most of the narrative in the story.
While Don has long abandoned his boyhood faith, Ava still believes, and quietly attempts to draw her new partner at least partway back to the church. Toward its denouement, Ava urges Don to take a walk in the old neighborhood.
As Boyle describes it: “Ava’s idea is to bring them past St. Mary’s School, where they both went, years apart, to reminisce about that a bit more, and stand in front of the church. She’s there every Saturday night and on every holy day. It’s been like that her whole life. … She just wants Don to see the place. (When) someone who’s been away from it for so long just gets close, things tend to come back. You see the stained-glass windows, you smell the smells, you see the cross, how can something not get stirred up?”
All of Boyle’s works to date are set in Brooklyn and are populated by blue-collar Catholic characters who sin, suffer and strive, but retain a tenuous hold on a sustaining faith.
Boyle’s debut novel, titled “Gravesend” after the district of south-central Brooklyn, was described by reviewers as a “noir” tale of Brooklynites as they struggle with the pull the neighborhood exerts on them.
But if Boyle’s fiction rarely strays from the crime genre, there is little doubt his work encompasses a strong faith element.
Boyle describes himself as both a straying but “Catholic-haunted” writer.
“I had 12 years of Catholic education in Bensonhurst and then Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge. I strayed from my faith in college but then entered into a period of devoutness that lasted through my twenties. (The Catholic) influence has made its way into my fiction in interesting and complicated ways, as I struggle daily with faith and doubt.”
Boyle said much of his writing, especially in terms of setting and mood, is rooted to his experiences at home parishes, St. Mary Mother of Jesus and Most Precious Blood in Brooklyn.
Boyle’s second novel, “The Lonely Witness,” focuses on protagonist Amy Falconetti, another Brooklynite looking to serve the church and community despite the squalor and limited horizons of working-class existence. Boyle describes Amy’s epiphany of sorts midway through the story: “Amy realized how much of her life had been devoted to selfish, empty things, and she wanted to help a little. She knew she was no saint, but she thought she might be able to bring a little light into people’s lives.”
The author’s nostalgic take on parochial Brooklyn life again comes to the fore in Boyle’s third novel, “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself,” his bestselling work to date. This one is an “on the road” story of Rena, the widow of a New York mobster, finding new friendships as she seeks to patch up relations with her estranged daughter and grandchild. The action is compacted into a 48-hour period that includes seductions, shootings, narrow escapes and implausible happenstance.
In this story, Rena realizes that faith and belief do not preclude occasional risk and recklessness: “Rena finds herself thinking of where she was the morning before. In her regular pew over by the tabernacle at St. Mary’s. The church she’s attended her whole life, daily since (her husband) Vic’s death. This will be the first day she’s missed in a long time. … She (decides) faith isn’t about restraint and obedience. It’s about force and desire and challenging God. Making things happen. Cut your path. Tear down what needs tearing down. … You can do bad things and God can still love you.”
Despite his Irish-Scottish surname, Boyle is Italian-American in his outlook and temperament. His mother was Italian and she is almost certainly the model from which Boyle portrays his older female characters. His work clearly evokes a gloomy Brooklyn ethos that would be difficult to convey in other settings.
“It’s like a Brooklyn of the soul, or a landscape of spiritual anguish,” Boyle said. “I’m interested in telling stories of people who feel trapped, who are searching for an identity. The church is there for many of these characters, (and) there is hope to be found in their faith. It’s a faith that’s pure and good, and on some level at least, it’s something I yearn for.”
In 2008, Boyle moved to Oxford, Mississippi, one-time home to William Faulkner, and a community that has attracted a slew of contemporary novelists. In 2012, Boyle became an adjunct professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where he specializes in the true crime genre.
Boyle’s latest novel, “Shoot the Moonlight Out,” was released in November. Like all its predecessors, this one is set in the Brooklyn and features teenagers and young adults trying to rise above the dreariness of their lives.
Boyle understands how an early exposure to the church influences an artist’s life and work.
“I think about something one of my heroes, Martin Scorsese, said in an interview a few years ago,” Boyle said. “(Catholicism is) always in you. My search for faith has never really ended from when I became aware that there was such a thing as faith and started to look at how it’s acted out in your daily life. I’m also indelibly marked by it, and it’s in everything I do.”
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Mike Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto.