"Dostoevskyan Climax" - Excellent, Meaty Review of Judging Angels

St. Corbinian's Bear's Ephemeris reader D. C. Alan has reviewed Judging Angels for a forthcoming limited-distribution anthology.  He is pleased to share it in advance for others interested in the novel. - Tim

D.C. Alan  ·  Review of Judging Angels, by Tim Capps August 2017 Copyright © D. C. Alan 
There are seven and a half billion people on this miserable mud drop. A lot of us have to wear more than one horn.

Judging Angels, by Tim Capps (Dorval, Québec and East Longmeadow, Mass.: Hope & Life Press, 2017).

“Amazon” marketed Judging Angels as “Hot Christian Fantasy”, a phrase that I try to put out of my mind every time that I think of it. Judging Angels is an ambitious and idiosyncratic first novel, part crime thriller and part philosophical drama, suffused with what might be some paranormal / supernatural elements—although, if you are a materialist inclined toward skepticism, your attempts to counter with some “real” explanations will make the novel additionally engaging.  As in “real life”, parts of Judging Angels are just preposterous enough to be believable (and doesn’t Satan count on our disbelief?).

Behind every murder was an unseen battle of spiritual agents who hid their faces behind masks. 

Author Timothy Capps, a retired Army linguist who then pursued a career as a prominent criminal-defense attorney in Illinois, is the personality behind the popular traditionalist Catholic ’blog “St. Corbinian’s Bear.”  Writing through his witty ursine alter ego, Mr. Capps regularly mercilessly slams, deservingly so, the shenanigans that are destroying the western Catholic Church and leading so many souls to ruin.  He certainly is one of the methodically best in explaining what is in error and why, and how it is harmful and what consequences we can expect.  But Mr. Capps is not unique in that respect.
Part of what distinguishes Mr. Capps’ analyses is that he consistently intuits a good sense of the “human nature” that leads astray these wicked clergy and their useful fools, on up to Pope Climate himself; the internal demons that animate the ease and eagerness with which many betray and subvert the Catholic Church and her beautiful Magisterium.

In Pope Francis, we have seen, for the first time, the incarnation of the Church’s errors and abuses.  God has driven into plain view the secret corruption, the pride posing as humility, the indifferentism posing as tolerance, the disregard for the Deposit of the Faith, and the “rebranding” of Catholicism and the papacy that Fr. Rosica is so proud of....No virtue may remain merely good with Francis.  It must become a mania, a delusion, another shiny object to be incorporated into the narcissistic personality of Francis the Humble, Francis the Tolerant, Francis the Compassionate.... (“The Mad Virtues of Pope Francis, and the Desperate Resistance”; 24 May 2016)

When last September, to the delight of his many fans, Mr. Capps began to reveal his work-in-progress, he promised:

The Bear does not write literature.  He writes crowd-pleasing yarns with smokin’ women and smokin’ guns, using simple words and as many familiar tropes as he can cram into 160,000ish words.  Subplots?  Confusing to the reader.  Character arcs?  Who cares?  You want plot, I got your plot.  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.  In chapter two people start dropping.  46 chapters later, they're still dropping.

Oh.  It's a Catholic psychological thriller.  Because the characters think sometimes.  (“Man, she’s smokin’,” thought Bill as he killed another bad guy with his .48 pistol with poison bullets.)  

* * * 

They were just mediocre people who had messed everything up in the most ordinary ways possible.

His willingness to engage human nature is one of the qualities that suits well Mr. Capps’ decision to tackle the novel as a form of expression.  Rather than being varied and contrasting character “types” (which is not all that hard to concoct), the actors (human and preternatural) in Judging Angels all are bearers of the universal “human nature”, and they come into form as individuals, as we all do, through which aspects of our nature, good and bad, emerge and recede in the course of their conduct.  

“Trade the bad for the good.  I don’t think Saint Thomas Aquinas would approve.”  

“Saint Thomas Aquinas didn’t have any kids.”  

The first of his intended “Rubricatae Chronicles” (yeah, so did I—it means “painted red”), Judging Angels is very superficially allusive to It’s A Wonderful Life, but far deeper and darker to be an obvious “knock-off”.  Even without explicit references to the Catholic faith, you can get a good sense that Judging Angels takes place within a “moral universe”, a world in which there is an objective right and wrong and of the knowledge to which people have access.  It is not an overstatement to describe as “Dostoevskyan” the theological climax of the story.

A good poem had more value than a human life.  Lives were for the most part unhappy messes anyway.

The story and dialogue are peppered with poetic references, but not in a superficial “verse-dropping” manner; there is a point to it all.  Mr. Capps himself is good with the occasional vivid vocabulary and phrases ("She was colorless in both flesh and attire, unless drab counted as a color").

He betrays an occasional macabre humor, such as with the wristwatch of a historical figure; and what forensic examiner wouldn’t sing “Candle in the Wind” in the laboratory?  Through it all is an odd succession of details—Christmas, Tarot, the CIA, hat-wearing Bible-study ladies, a feather that speaks Roumanian, and a foppish gay millionaire.

The real story is always on the inside.

Judging Angels does not skimp on the weaknesses, insecurities, shortcomings, and misfortunes that open the door wide for temptations and temptators, figurative and literal (for the sake of narrative fiction).  As Michael Voris of “Church Militant” has commented: “Pope Leo XIII’s insight is just as true today as when he first wrote it near the close of the 19th century: ‘[Catholics] are born for combat.’  The combat we enter into is control over ourselves and over the temptings of the enemy.”  (The Weapon: Chaining the Gates of Hell with the Holy Rosary, 2016.)

Onto this stage of pathos walks “George Able”, a noteworthily successful lawyer disgraced by the deceit and cowardice of men, his once loved wife “Alice” now in a ludicrous affair with a rich and stable but annoyingly unctuous physician, and their two good children suffering through it all.  ("Just another day in the life of a forgotten 15-year-old whose parents were pulling his life down around his ears.")

If ever you have been in a time of overwhelming stress, you know how your thoughts can tumble upon themselves in a rapid-fire, disconnected jumble of words and sentence fragments that just make the trauma even worse.  Trying to write down this speeding train of thoughts as they are happening is next to impossible, and trying to imagine them when not in such a state is exceedingly difficult.  Yet Mr. Capps at times is able to convey that sense of internal torment, usually in George but occasionally in other characters as well, helping us to identify with the anguish as we are in the midst of it.

“I’m not stupid.  Richard had lots of money and Red’s hot.  So what?  We were good enough before.  You guys were great.  I want things the way they were.”

You don’t have to read “St. Corbinian’s Bear” for too long to discover that Mr. Capps has a “thing” for red hair, with his Ginger Rogers obsession and his loving references to his wife, “Red Death”.

Naturally, then, the principal foil to George Able is the ravishingly beautiful young “Red Morgan”, a peculiar creature who maddeningly careens from a baffling naïveté and unawareness to calculatingly beguiling and ruthless; at times knowing things that she shouldn’t while not remembering things that she ought.

Is she George’s “guardian angel”, or just a lost and confused girl-woman longing for the same elusive happiness that we all want?  (In what must have been irresistible to Mr. Capps, Ginger Rogers makes two cameos in the novel, pertinent to the moral themes and character development.)

“[W]hen I said you were an angry woman, I didn’t mean right now.  I meant that’s you.  That’s your defining characteristic.  You know something?  I don’t blame George.  He found himself someone prettier, younger, and who, although she’s a psychopathic killer, probably isn’t half the bitch you are.”  

As a character study, Alice is the most persuasive of the bunch.  Apropos, the core drama around which both the criminal and theological dramas revolve is the crumbling marriage between George and Alice, and here the dialogue often is painfully, cringingly, heartbreakingly “real”.

But the trap into which novelists often fall is when they have things that they want to explain which they then put into the mouths of characters, resulting in dialogue that not the least bit persuasive as what actual interaction would take place; and readers can be lost when this artificiality interrupts the flow of an otherwise moving plot.  This happens at a few disappointing points in Judging Angels, notably in two conversations between George Able and his boss, “Andy Akimwe”; and in a television newscast that is glaringly “unrealistic” for how reporters actually talk when they are on camera.

If, like me, you are convinced that contemporary U.S. politics offers proof of the diabolical, then one subplot of Judging Angels won’t be any more implausible than other explanations.  The crime drama aspect of Judging Angels is informed by Mr. Capps’ long career in criminal defense without being didactically so.  (By contrast, for example, some dialogue in Alan Dershowitz’ 1994 novel The Advocate’s Devil (Warner) reads like a law text.)  Related at least tangentially to the “human nature” element is the occasional unreliability of “scientific” forensic evidence, more so than the average citizen might like to know.

“The sloppiest trial took ordinary facts more seriously than religion took ordinary truths.  I woke up one morning and realized I hadn’t really believed in a long time.  I don’t think anyone does.  Not really.”

As Judging Angels devolves into more of a caper, the theological tones actually become sharper.  If, as they sometimes say, the worst circumstances can bring out the best in us, then through the horror of it all one particular and perhaps unexpected character development in the end will bring especial satisfaction.

* * * 

Perhaps the Church had retreated into feel-good meetings and pop psychology, because it knew the dragons were real and this was an age when men no longer had the stomach to fight dragons.

I do not know if Mr. Capps has pondered this, but Judging Angels would make a very engaging movie.  Streamlined as a novel of this length would have to be to fit into a 100-minute story, it potentially could emerge as an even stronger vehicle for its moral themes, thriller entertainment, and memorable characters. The ’blogosphere has its own important audience, but Tim Capps is tackling ideas that need to be heard more widely in these woefully godless times.  We should offer encouragement as he continues to develop and refine this series for the literary market—and hope that he will consider seriously the cinematic, too.