Although Catholic themes, characters, and motifs feature prominently in his work, New York–based writer, political historian, and chronicler of all things Irish American Peter Quinn is hesitant to define himself as a “Catholic novelist.”
“I don’t happen to be a novelist. I’ve worked hard to become one,” says Quinn. “I [also] don’t happen to be a Catholic. I’ve struggled with my belief almost my entire life. Where the two meet—and whether it matters or not—is for the reader to decide.”
The author of four novels and a book of essays on “being Irish in the Big Apple,” Quinn is fascinated with the history and experience of Irish expatriates struggling to survive in North America following the great famine of the mid-19th century.
Quinn’s interest in chronicling the Irish American experience through fiction was fostered by his own upbringing and later by his studies at Fordham University in the early 1970s, though he didn’t publish his first novel, Banished Children of Eve (Fordham University Press), until 1994. In the meantime, he toiled as a speechwriter for former New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo as well as the Time Warner communications organization.
“I became absorbed in the story of the Irish Famine and their mass descent on New York, a saga of which my own family had been part,” Quinn notes in an essay from his 2007 book Looking for Jimmy (Fordham University Press), a treatise on the rise of Irish culture and tradition in New York. “Out of this came my desire to write Banished Children of Eve.”
The novel describes the Irish community’s struggles in New York during the turbulent Civil War period. The book, which won the 1995 American Book Award, offers readers a fictionalized but formidable portrait of “Dagger John” Hughes, the first archbishop of what would eventually become the Archdiocese of New York, and imagines Hughes’ pastoral challenge as the 1863 New York Draft Riots and brutal violence against the city’s Black population tear the city apart.
Quinn’s next three books, Hour of the Cat, The Man Who Never Returned, and Dry Bones (all from Fordham University Press), form a trilogy featuring wizened, cynical—and Catholic—private detective (and occasional covert World War II operative) Fintan Dunne as the central character.
Some reviewers describe Fintan Dunne as a Catholic version of Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe, the wise-cracking sleuth who personifies the Los Angeles midcentury noir fiction genre.
A product of Quinn’s Bronx Catholic–fueled imagination, Dunne is a jaded antihero who distrusts authority and detests injustice and oppression despite his own sins, failings, and misgivings. He is a former altar boy who was raised in a Catholic secondary school and who randomly recalls Latin responses to the opening prayers in the pre-Second Vatican Council liturgies.
“Dunne is a skeptic toward the rich and privileged and an agnostic when it comes to versions of the truth peddled by politicians and powerful public figures,” Quinn says.
According to Fred Nachbaur, director of Fordham University Press and the new publisher of Quinn’s fiction, “Dunne is a character who seems to encompass Quinn’s relationship to Catholicism. It permeates his actions in subtle ways such as prayers and gestures recalled and directs his moral compass, peaking through Quinn’s prose.”
It would be overly simplistic to suggest Dunne is Quinn’s fictional alter ego, but it’s clear many aspects of the author’s Catholic imagination have found their way into his creation.
“In our years together, I’ve never asked Fintan about his faith. He’s never volunteered,” says Quinn. “[But] we share an Irish Catholic upbringing, a passion for New York City, a love of the Salve Regina, and a belief in original sin and the possibility of redemption.”
Quinn recently concluded a deal with his alma mater to reprint his previously published works for a new set of readers. His former publisher had sold its catalogue to another book company specializing in art books rather than fiction. The sale rendered Quinn’s original canon in danger of falling out of print.
Conversion, I’ve found, is like love. It’s a question of persistence, through good times and bad, sickness and health, darkness and day.
“The sale left my books as orphans,” says Quinn. “However, a friend told me about the Fordham University Press’ Empire State Editions, which publishes books about the history, culture, ecology, and ethnic diversity of New York. Fordham University Press was starting its New York ReLit program, which would reissue literary fiction and memoirs by New Yorkers who deserved to stay in print.”
In addition to republishing his earlier works, Fordham University Press will publish Quinn’s memoir, Cross Bronx: A Writing Life, for its fall 2022 season. “We are pleased to have this original work on our list and continue serving as his publisher,” Nachbaur says. “Peter’s deep knowledge and recollections of a Bronx long forgotten allow us to cement his past in an imprint focused on New York City by a publisher located in New York and dedicated to preserving and giving voice to New York authors.”
Quinn is tending to the memoir project for now, but a fifth novel is on the drawing board. Tentatively titled Amid a Crowd of Stars (taken from a W. B. Yeats poem), this one deals with a priest of a fictitious religious order in upstate New York struggling to hold true to his ideals amid setbacks, disillusionment, and personal failings, echoing Quinn’s own struggles with his faith.
“[Sometimes] I get to the point where I think that maybe I don’t need the church, and that, just as likely, the church doesn’t want me. I feel ready to walk away. It never lasts,” says Quinn. “The same question always draws me back: ‘Lord, to whom shall I go?’ Conversion, I’ve found, is like love. It’s a question of persistence, through good times and bad, sickness and health, darkness and day.”
While the novel won’t feature Dunne, it will almost certainly incorporate much of the author’s resilient but battle-scarred attitude toward faith, sin, redemption, and creation’s eternal questions.
“I’ve been working on the novel for several years,” Quinn says. “Every time I think I’m finished, I notice another loose end, and when I pull on that end, the story seems to unravel and off I go on another round of restitching. But it keeps me busy, and so I beat on, a boat against the current.”
Image: Don Pollard