James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….
From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.
Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics.
The novels covers a few years in the life of a young Southern Baptist minister named London Wingo. Note my specificity in describing Wingo’s denomination. Street himself served for a few years as a Southern Baptists minister and he knows the denomination intimately from both training (like London Wingo, Street attended Southwestern Seminary in Texas) and one of his pastorates was a church in small town Missouri that I suspect one would find eerily like the one where London Wingo serves through the bulk of The Gauntlet. If you’re thinking at this point that perhaps Street’s novel might be just a tad autobiographical, you would have built your thought castle on the rock, not on shifting sand.
Wingo, as one can assume Street was, is less “moved by the spirit” than he is motivated by intellect and progressive political views to pursue the ministry, and his “humanist” (Street’s term) tendencies bring him into conflict with the power elites of the First Baptist Church of Linden, MO. Wingo feels the call to address the needs of the economically and socially disadvantaged in his pastorate more than he feels the need to act in politically astute ways to appease and please the deacons and the “ladies circle” grande dames who, for all practical purposes, run his church. His wife Kathie (whom the grande dames insist must be called Katherine) is the daughter of a Baptist minister and understands local church politics far better than her idealistic husband. Yet she, too, becomes ensnared in the machinations of church politics (smear campaigns against her husband of both the economic and personal sort) and suffers stress to such a degree that her health fails during her second pregnancy and both she and the baby die.
One would expect such a blow to embitter London Wingo and be the impetus for his decision to leave behind, if not the ministry, at least the ugliness of small town church backbiting for work in a large suburban church. In fact, Wingo has such opportunities, one during the economic scandal (Wingo fights the church over their willingness to be co-opted by a big city capitalist who merely wants access to a church member’s – a talented kite designer – ideas so that he can produce kites on a large scale and enrich himself while cheating the designer and sheltering his profits by using the church’s non-profit status as a tax dodge) that would allow him to take his family to suburban Atlanta, and a second after his wife’s death that would have given him the chief minister’s post at the largest Baptist church in Kansas City. He turns both down and as the novel ends returns to Linden, MO, to take up his ministry again, chastened by his loss, but strengthened in his faith and more in tune with “the spirit”; we sense that in future his actions will be less motivated by his intellect and progressive vision of what the church can do for people and more accepting of being guided by that amorphous factor known as “the will of God.”
It’s not exactly the ending one expects, given what one has seen of Wingo’s character and temperament over the course of the novel. Plausible? Yes. Probable? Not so much based on the character’s history. Why Street chose this ending may be the result of his own life decisions getting in the way of his fiction writing; it might also be the result of a decision he wished he’d made getting its expression. Nothing wrong with using one’s fiction for wish fulfillment, one might argue – except that such behavior by a writer can cause one’s work to lose the ring of truth, even under the Picasso rubric. It is Street’s one significant weakness in an otherwise engaging and believable novel.
Where Street rings true time and again, though, is in his depictions of small town church politics. He understands Southern Baptists and their (one time) penchant for independent thinking. He also understands the intimate relationship between a minister and his flock, as this observation from the retiring minister to London Wingo demonstrates:
You’re a pastor now, and your life and your wife’s life will belong to the members…. Everything you do and say will call for comment, maybe criticism. Some days you’ll be in the clouds and think God is holding your hand, but more often you’ll be in the valley…. You are a pastor now, brother, and a pastor needs the tact of a diplomat, the strength of Samson, the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon – and a cast-iron stomach.
The Gauntlet does as fine a job of depicting the hot-house experience that is being a minister. James Street, like Anthony Trollope, writes with sureness and insight of clergy, laity, politics, and faith. While the ending of The Gauntlet leaves something to be desired, overall, Street’s treatment of life wearing the collar will please most readers curious about the clerical life.