Valerie Sayer’s Brain Fever is a very Catholic book in that it’s not quite Catholic enough for a Protestant reader to make ready religious sense of it. The characters, especially the leading man, Tim Rooney, an anti-hero, are constantly repositioning themselves relative to their waxing or waning Catholicity. Even so, no one really makes a “Here I stand” commitment for or against the Church. The characters are Catholic because their faith is an inheritance more so than an allegiance. They know it like the decor of their childhood homes, a decor they would gladly change but for the fear of insulting their mothers.
The plot of Brain Fever is simple enough. A literate, middle-aged Southerner slides into mania, leaves his fiancé and heads to the city of New York where he spends his time revisiting the places he frequented during his youth as a graduate student. Meanwhile the people that care about him move in and out of his territory, trying to find him, trying to help him, trying to make sense of his insanity and, ultimately, racing to save him from his own demise.
While pathetic, Tim Rooney is less than likeable. On the other hand, the cast of subordinate characters who try to help him are very likeable. As the book draws to a close, the reader will find that one worries more about the impact of Tim’s behavior on others than about the risks that Tim himself faces. Thus, Sayers has made of Mr. Rooney a very effective anti-hero. Comparatively, we know very little about the supporting characters, but what we know about the life and mind of the anti-hero makes us empathize with his friends. As a group, one might think of these folks as the Catholic communion–the lay people (a South Carolinian diaspora, in this case) who, wittingly or not, do their best to minister to the whole body of Christ, a body which includes the nearly toxic Tim Rooney.
The religiously illiterate Catholic community, therefore, is the hero of the book. Why do these characters love Tim? I’m not persuaded that any of them really know–and some of them wish that they didn’t. Were they to start thinking about it, Protestant style, it would drive them to some kind of Kierkegaardian madness at best and at worst they would succumb to the solipsism of the individual, the feverish idolatry of the self. In short, when you’re losing your mind it would be wise to have some habitual Catholics in your life.