Former Madison Avenue advertising executive Brian J. Gail has published his first novel, Fatherless.
Already in its fourth printing, it’s the first of three planned novels the Catholic author refers to as “the American tragedy in trilogy.”
Gail recently spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake about the book from his winter home on Jupiter Island, Fla.
Tell me about your family and growing up.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My father was a salesman. My mother was a full-time homemaker. I have two brothers and one sister, all younger. We are extremely close. Our mom made it clear to each of us that the faith is the pearl of great price. One brother and one sister went through divorces they didn’t want. Another lost a spouse and child at Christmas in a car accident. My wife and I lost a child, who was bipolar, to suicide. It is a testament to our mother’s fidelity to her vocation that we’re still all in the sacraments and each very much connected to the life of the Church.
I was a real rascal. I was tossed out of the Boy Scouts at 13. My parents tried to put me in reform school at 15. I flunked conduct as a senior in high school. I was thrown out of the home at 19. I was even thrown off my college baseball team … and I was the star pitcher. I was just an incorrigible, rebellious kid. What’s interesting is that I’m still rebelling. Fatherless is a cri d’coeur at the lack of a countercultural voice in the Church here in America.
What inspired you to write Fatherless?
My generation failed the Church, the country and ourselves. Now we’re failing the next generation. Enough already. We simply decided not to trust our children with the truth. As a consequence they are making decisions absent any objective moral reason. They are stumbling into terrible pain and suffering which will have a ruinous half-life over the whole of their lives.
Fatherless is the first in a trilogy about the American tragedy. The intent is to dramatize what really happened to cause the mightiest empire in humankind to fall in such a swift and summary manner. Fatherless is set in the 1980s — Morning in America. The second book, which is about three-quarters finished, will be set in the present moment. The third, God willing, will be set in the 2020s. The trilogy will follow a 40-year period, from morning to midnight in America.
How long have you been working on it?
The first edition of Fatherless took about six months to write and another six months to edit. There were problems with it. Part of the book is a behind-the-scenes look at the launch of pay cable television in America. It depicts the conditions which gave rise to what in the trade is called “vps” (violence, profanity and sex). I let some of it seep into the manuscript. One day I was signing books, and a young girl, about 12, came up. I immediately asked where her mother was. She pointed her out, and I got up and went over and told her the book was not suitable reading for a child. She was very grateful. She said: “I’m so glad you told me. My daughter is an inveterate reader. She would have finished that book in one weekend.” I was a bit shocked, and I heard myself say: “Tell you what … we’ll publish a second edition, and I’ll get all that offensive stuff out of the manuscript and make sure it can be read by a child.” And we did.
It’s a work of fiction, but much of it comes from your own experiences. How much of it is non-fiction?
A quarter maybe. Aspects of Maggie Kealey’s character are modeled after my wife, Joan, a long-time victim soul. Michael Burns’ character is modeled, in part, after my own career on Madison Avenue. The rest is entirely fictionalized. I was involved in the U.S. launch of pay cable television, which proved to be the beginning of family-wide access to pornography in the home.
Joe Delgado’s experience as a pharmaceutical executive is entirely fictionalized. I’ve had people who have read the book and asked me if things really went down as described in the book, regarding oral contraceptives. I tell them I have no idea … but point out a past president of the Catholic Medical Association told me it is entirely plausible that they did.
It’s a matter of public record that the birth-control pill came out of the labs of England and was test marketed in Puerto Rico … with lethal results … about 11 women died. Those responsible fudged the results and changed the mix of chemicals and launched it in the U.S. in 1960. They claimed it could help regulate a woman’s cycle. The Church was caught off guard. Catholics embraced it in droves. By the time Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, it was too little, too late. Now, 40 years later, we are suffering in the aftermath. The economic consequence alone is catastrophic.
The novel speaks of a “hollowing out” that’s occurred. Tell me about that.
We’ve lost our moral energy to bridge the gap between what our technology permits us to do and what our heart tells us we ought do. We bit into a very seductive apple with a two-headed worm in it. One of the heads brought images into the family sanctuary, the living room, that suggested … sex on demand … is an entitlement. The other head snaked its way into the medicine cabinet as though to protect a woman from some disease or illness. One marital embrace at a time, over the course of a generation, we hollowed out a nation. This is how empires fall.
That brings up the key point of the novel. It’s only by saying “yes” to God that man has the power to say “no” to himself. Without that “no” there is no self mastery. And without self mastery there can be no self-donation. And without self-donation, there can be no authentic sense of self-identity. The problems of the present moment are very much rooted in an identity crisis here in the West. In a burst of euphoria over his technological achievements, postmodern man replaced God at the center of the universe with himself. As history makes all too manifestly clear … this usually doesn’t work out too well.
We’ve lost the culture of protection?
Yes. We have, in our time, a video replay of the first “big lie” in the garden. Satan bypasses the family structure. For whatever reason, Adam didn’t protect Eve. The serpent seduced her with a lie. Her fall had calamitous consequences for all of mankind. In the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, Satan bypasses the man again. He promises women a miracle pill that would prevent conception and liberated her from the imprisonment of motherhood.
Now we are living with the disastrous results. In the last generation, the average number of children in Catholic families went from 5.5 to 2.1. About one third of that 2.1 are the children of our Hispanic brothers and sisters. The entire spiritual patrimony of 12 generations of Americans has been exhausted in a single generation. The next generation — the 13th generation of Americans — now faces a future without a moral compass.
Where is the hope?
In the novel, the hope is found in Maggie Kealey’s resolution — with her life having crumbled all around her — that she is going to remain steadfast to what she has been taught and what she believes. Fully understanding its indispensability, she commits to handing on the faith to her children with the same degree of fidelity that her mother handed it on to her.
At the conclusion of the book, Father John Sweeney is given a second chance. After delivering a difficult sermon on the demands of the faith, a young couple that’s been struggling with the issue of marital chastity approaches him for help. He is filled with gratitude for another opportunity.
Michael Burns has been fired. He has seven children and seems without hope. Yet, he discovers the promise in Revelation 3 to the Church in Philadelphia that “because you clung to me, I will open a door that no one will close.” Michael understands that God is speaking to him, and this allows him to face the future unafraid.
How have people reacted to the book?
The reaction has stunned me. I never anticipated this kind of response. My publisher says we are only a few thousand copies away from a best-seller. Just hard to believe. It’s all happened so quickly. I guess I’ve been most surprised by what I hear from young people and non-Catholics. People just seem to relate to the characters and their struggles.
I’ve learned a seminary in Ohio made it required reading for seminarians and asked the seminarians to write a paper on Father Sweeney’s final sermon. That just blew me away. Overall, I haven’t received a lot of response from our priests … but the responses I have received have been very affirming.
The book isn’t only about a priest who isn’t being a shepherd, but also about “fathers” who aren’t being fathers.
Very true. The title comes from a conversation between some young couples and Father Sweeney. At one point in the novel, he learns several young couples that he was cultivating for the future of his parish have abandoned him and gone to another parish where the priest is “feeding them” as they explain to him. Father Sweeney is dumbfounded. One of the young men tells him: “Father … if you don’t trust us with the truth, you leave us spiritually fatherless.” This is a generational indictment, not one isolated only to my generation’s bishops and priests. We boomers have forfeited the covenant. The painful lesson we are about to learn is that if man does not balance the demands of the Church’s universal call to holiness with his pursuit of the American dream, he ends up with neither.
Tell me about the next two books.
The second one picks up with the same characters 20 years later. It will be titled Motherless. They all face new existential challenges … principally around the great moral issues of in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem-cell research. Father Sweeney gets transferred and comes back older and wiser. Maggie Kealey goes back to school, becomes a nurse and is ultimately named president of a Catholic hospital. Joe Delgado’s company is about to be acquired by a major global corporation with a sinister agenda. Just your usual light fare.
The final book, Childless, will be set in the 2020s. We’ll imagine life at the bottom of the black abyss we have created for ourselves. We’ll explore what happens when man forgets there is an umbilical relationship between the natural order and the mystical order. When you breach one, you upset the other. Man has to get what the late, great Father Richard J. Neuhaus called the “First Things” right. The first of the “First Things” is the sacred transmission of human life. My generation didn’t get it right. As a consequence, we have brought our society to the brink of destruction. The only way back from the brink is through a road called the Gospel of Life and Love.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.