‘My Dad modeled heroic love for us,” Mary Connolly Breiner writes about her father, Myles Connolly, in the preface of a new edition of his novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil. As Breiner puts it:
Dan is a single man, too afraid and too cowardly, he believes, to ever attain the “high heroism of dedicated fatherhood.” The father, as Dan sees him, is “that undistinguished yawning man you see in the early morning,” leaving home for his job. Returning each night, tired and troubled, he is smiling and cheerful for his family. No flags or bands for him, he is the “slaving poor father” who seeks above all else to bring home what his children need for their total well-being. Shot through the seeming tedium of his days, however, is his earnestness about teaching them Faith, deeply certain that this is the most critical nourishment he can, and must, provide them.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who is Dan England and what is he doing with a devil at noon, or any other time?
Stephen Mirarchi: Struggling! Dan England is a generous, joyful man — part G. K. Chesterton, part Hilaire Belloc, and part Myles Connolly — who sees the best in people, maybe to a fault. And that’s why he struggles with that pesky noonday devil: He is so very good, and yet he wants to be heroic, which means giving up lesser goods for greater goods.
Mirarchi: As C. S. Lewis would say much later than Bacon, “the joys of Heaven are, for most of us in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste.’” Chesterton says something similar against the symmetry of paganism in Orthodoxy: “Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.” Excellent beauty will appeal to us, but there will be simultaneously something strange that we can’t quite get our heads around — something out of proportion. That’s what Dan England has to figure out: heroism in not merely symmetrical abundance but out-of-proportion superabundance, a term Connolly uses in the novel.
You have to model what heroic fatherhood looks like. Connolly mentions people like Saint Thomas More, who more than obviously fit the bill.
Lopez: What does the novel have to do with fatherhood and Father’s Day?
Mirarchi: Much of the novel’s plot involves Dan’s spiritual fatherhood, wherein he invites all kinds of people to his home, gives them food and drink, and builds friendships with them as he regales them with his wonderful tales. All the time he’s teaching them the joy of the gospel — sometimes more implicitly than others. And his guests change — not dramatically at first, but ordinarily, slowly, one step at a time, though some don’t seem to change at all. Dan’s spiritual fatherhood offers true friendship and transforms those in his presence. No wonder Connolly dedicated this novel to his three sons; it was his literary tribute and legacy to them.
Lopez: How do we “retrieve the heroic vocation of fatherhood”?
Mirarchi: First, you have to tell people it’s a real thing and can actually be done. As Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Fatherhood is tough! Some men are overly competitive or ambitious and get so wrapped up in their careers that their families, their domestic churches, get short shrift. Others have bought into an unhealthy timidity and don’t model genuine masculinity. The rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Father James Mason, has a wonderful article on this topic, “The Forgotten Vice in Seminary Formation,” as does Bishop Olmsted with his exhortation Into the Breach. Anthony Esolen dedicates an entire chapter to it, “Restoring Manhood,” in his Out of the Ashes.
Second, you have to model what heroic fatherhood looks like. Connolly mentions people like Saint Thomas More, who more than obviously fit the bill. With Dan England, we get to journey along with him and the people he’s gathered to himself; we witness what that heroic journey of spiritual fatherhood is going to be like, including some of its most heartbreaking pitfalls.
Lopez: What’s the joy of the gift, and how can it transform lives?
Mirarchi: In our times, Saint John Paul II was one of the foremost thinkers to develop the concept of the law of the gift — namely, that when it comes to generosity, God will never be outdone. If generosity is part and parcel of who God is, then several things follow: When we give as much as we can, we participate in God’s very life, and there’s nothing we can give away that God won’t give back to us a hundredfold, both now and in His full presence. The law of the gift thus transforms humdrum or obligatory charity into cooperation with the very joyful, self-giving love of God Himself.
Lopez: What does Dan England have to do with the joy of the gift?
Mirarchi: Dan England works through several degrees of this gift, yearning for the greatest of them all. Connolly understood the law of the gift, and his task was to write stories that would make the joy of the gift not only reasonable and convincing but attractive and inspiring. So many people comment years after reading Mr. Blue that they remember how much they liked the main character, even if they disagreed with him. How do I get Blue’s joy, they wonder? Blue’s complete and total self-offering is the joy of the gift. Dan England has it, too, but he has to struggle a little more for it. Modern readers who enjoy watching a character move through religious states — purgation, illumination, even union — will recognize Connolly’s craft in Dan England.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.