Fr. Dwight Longenecker has released his second Screwtape-style novel, Slubgrip Instructs. C.S. Lewis fans are understandably wary: Is it possible to write a follow-on work that’s more than a pastiche? The answer is yes, and there are good literary reasons why Longenecker has succeeded.
Quick Background: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is a novel told from the perspective of the demons charged with tempting a young man. It’s a humorous and insightful look at the pitfalls and glorious reality of the Christian life. In 2009, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, avowedly steeped in the Lewis tradition, published a Catholic follow-on to Screwtape, The Gargoyle Code. Styled as a Lenten devotion, it’s a page-turning look at the perils of life in the Catholic pews.
The newly-released Slubgrip Instructs is another Lenten “devotional”, if by “devotional” you mean “wicked satire, painfully true.” The the theory is that you’ll read one entry a day from Mardi Gras to Easter. I lack that penitential capacity, so I read Slubgrip the same way I’ve read and re-read its predecessors, in a single sitting. Slubgrip delves into fresh territory: We’re looking at the popular culture now. The title character, Slubgrip, is charged with teaching aspiring-tempters how their “Father Below’s” corps of minions work through academia, the popular press, and entertainment to create a social mindset that distorts our understanding of truth and goodness.
The book succeeds. It’s a tour of everything you’ll want your teenager to know before going out into the world, and that you wish most of your fellows in the pews knew, too. Because it’s a satirical novel, it’s not just true, it’s entertaining. (Which causes a bit of discomfort when one gets to the installment on our national addiction to being entertained.)
Why It Works: What Does it Take to Write this Stuff?
How is it that Fr. Longenecker has managed to produce two excellent additions to the Screwtape genre, rather than merely passing off a bit of ho-hum fan-fiction? There are three reasons:
- The man knows satire. He’s been working the alter-egos over at his blog for ages now.
- The story-telling is there. Longenecker understands how a novel works. He can generate a plot and see it through.
- He has the intellectual substance to back it up.
#3 is crucial. Satire alone gives you The Onion. Good story-telling alone gives you Agatha Christie — the sort of output that distracts you with turning pages sufficiently that you mostly don’t notice the doubtful literary merits of the work. Longenecker has the intellectual formation and the decades of practical theology needed to pull off a work that can stand on its own among the authors he counts as his mentors, no humble shuffling required.
Who Should Read this Book?
If you really love Family Circle and Umbert the Unborn, Slubgrip is not for you. You can read an excerpt from the book here, to make sure it’s your speed. In general, I’d say that if you enjoy satire and want the punch of Knox with the easy-reading of Lewis, it’s your genre. Recommended for ages high school and up.
- Sarah Reinhard reviews Slubgrip.
- The Patheos Slubgrip Book Club landing site.
- Caitlin O’Rourke, one of Fr. L’s many guest bloggers, who will give you a feel for how he feels about religious people.
Full disclosure: I’m a longtime reader of Fr. L’s blog, and we know each other professionally and socially just enough to have a rough idea of each other’s worst faults. He sent me a PDF review copy of Slubgrip, and I’ll be spending my own money at my local Catholic bookstore to buy a hard copy for my shelves, which I’ll store in the hall bath, where my teenage son will find it.