Jamie Howison’s review of A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen
First off, I need to place my cards right out on the table and admit that I am a big fan of Ron Hansen’s work—both of his novels and of his 2001 collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays On Faith And Fiction. I was first alerted to his work a few years back when I saw the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was based on Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. Running fully 160 minutes, with very little of the typical gun play and horse-back chase scenes, the film was more a study of the nature of good and evil than it was a conventional Western. I immediately set about to track down the novel, and was not at all surprised to discover that it was by a writer of Christian faith. Hansen is in fact not only a professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, but since 2007 has served as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
Several of his nine novels are built around historical characters, including not only Jesse James, but also the Dalton Brothers (Desperadoes), Gerard Manley Hopkins (Exiles, Mike Boyce’s review of which you can read by clicking here), and even Adolph Hitler (Hitler’s Niece). With A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion Hansen turns to a crime case from the 1920s, in which the businessman Albert Snyder was brutally killed by his wife Ruth and her alcoholic lover Judd Gray; a crime that in its day created a media frenzy and turned the trial into a standing-room-only society event.
The murder itself was gruesome—which led Cornelius Vanderbilt III to write that Ruth Snyder has set aside all reason, loyalty, parental and spousal feeling in “a wild surge of guilty passion”—and Hansen spares no details. Neither does he hide the torrid nature of the sexual affair… were this novel to be filmed as it is, it would have a hard time avoiding an X rating. Yet the sex is neither gratuitous nor even particularly sexy; it is simply raw and, for Judd Gray, impossible to resist. And that is precisely where the story gets interesting.
Hansen refuses to demonize his characters, nor suggest that their monstrous act makes them monsters. In an interview published in the online journal, The Fine Delight, Hansen summarized his interest in the story as follows:
A subject grabs you and half the time you’re working on it you’re trying to find out why it had such a powerful attraction to your psyche. What initially captivated me about Ruth and Judd was that they were demonstrably good people who little by little began to go wrong because of frustration and sexual yearnings and the dullness of their lives, until it began to seem logical that they should murder Ruth’s husband. The psychology of that fascinated me.
Midway through the book Hansen slips in the detail that Ruth Snyder suffered from Graves’ Disease, an autoimmune disease that often has neuropsychological manifestations. Ultimately Hansen does not offer this detail in order to excuse Snyder, but instead to at least partly account for her inexplicable mood swings, callous attitude, and her oftentimes cruel words to her lover. Part of what this does is to shift the focus away from Ruth Snyder and over to Judd Gray. If part of what lies at the root of Snyder’s behavior is biochemical in origin, what fuels Gray? Here Hansen paints a picture of a very average man living in what he experiences as a tedious marriage, who has cultivated a drinking problem as a way of coping, and who comes to discover that he is willing to do virtually anything for the sake of the approval of his lover. And it is not a pretty picture, but it is also not one of a monster. Gray’s capitulation to this madness is sketched as something that made a strange kind of sense to him, and it is only when the madness is brought to an abrupt halt that he can begin to see an alternate future. It is, in short, a portrayal of the way in which people can so often convince themselves that the lie they are living is somehow better than the truth they are avoiding. It is a portrayal of evil in all of its banal and self-justifying rationality.
In his interview with The Fine Delight Hansen adds that, “Perhaps it comes from the quizzical part of me that wondered, in Hitler’s Niece, how Adolf Hitler could convince the otherwise sensible citizens of Germany to wage a world war and try to exterminate the Jews.” This actually opens up the question of social evil, which in A Wild Surge Hansen explores in his portrayal of the “passionate” interest—even delight—the general public took in these events. Hansen insists we see the actual human people behind the monstrous crime, and in doing so he exposes the monstrous thirst of the culture for blood, scandal, and salacious sex stories. Then as now, it sells papers (or their 21st century equivalents…), and for Hansen that is a most telling thing.
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion is published by Scribner, 2011