"Told with integrity and style, this is a moving account of the
generational strains of the Vietnam era, and the
timeless agonies of fathers and sons." The New Yorker
In this dramatic, intimate, and tragic memoir, James Carroll recovers a time when parents
could no longer understand their children and when young people could
no longer recognize the country they had been raised to love. The wounds
inflicted in that time have never fully healed, but Carroll accomplishes
a personal healing in telling his familys remarkable story.
The Carroll family stood at the center of the conflicts swirling around the Vietnam
War. A former FBI man, Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll was director
of the Defense Intelligence Agency through most of the war and helped
choose enemy bombing targets. His wife, Mary, a devoted friend of the
hawkish Francis Cardinal Spellman, felt sympathy for antiwar priests
and tried to balance her devotion to her husband with love for her sons.
This shattering history is shaped by the choices made by three of the five Carroll sons.
Dennis became a draft fugitive. Brian joined the FBI and hunted draft
resisters and Catholic radicals. James, fulfilling his fathers
abandoned dream, became a Roman Catholic priest. But he soon allied
himself with Catholic radicals who were one brothers target and
anothers support. While Americas streets exploded with protest,
the Carrolls precious and privileged world collapsed.
An American Requiem is above all James Carrolls story. An Elvis fan, an
altar boy, a generals proud son, a civil rights organizer, a Eugene
McCarthy volunteer, a college chaplain, a resisterhe was also
a priest who broke his vows. And all the while he loved his family and
warStephen shipped his father, even as the war came between them.
Only after he left the priesthood to become a writer and husband and father did
Carroll come to understand fully the struggles his father had faced.
And in this book he draws on his novelists skills to tell his
and part of his countrys story. An American Requiem
is a heartfelt and heart-rending benediction on his fathers
life, his familys struggles, and the legacies of his own generation.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading
groups and provide a deeper understanding of An American Requiem
How did Lieutenant General Joseph Carroll, in his person and his history,
embody the forces that shaped Jamess life and behavior?
How are various hierarchical authorities, both institutional and individual,
portrayed in the book? How do father and son, individually, relate to
What is the significance of Carrolls beginning the book with his ordination
Mass and closing with Joseph Carrolls requiem Mass? Is this framing
device appropriate to the progression of the books narrative?
In chapter 1, Carroll writes that, during the early years of his anti-war
activity, I was two people, and . . . each of my selves seemed
to have a coherence and integrity that were belied by the fact that
I could not bring them together. Does he succeed in integrating
his disparate selves?
In chapter 1 and again in the final chapter, Carroll writes, I believe
that to be made in Gods image is to do this: arrange memory and
transform experience according to the structure of narrative. The story
is what saves us. How does this belief relate to both Carrolls
personal development and his book?
The concept of redemption recurs in various contexts, not all of them religious.
What kinds of redemption are presented? Does one eventually assume precedence?
What are the similarities and differences between Carrolls life and
his fathers? How did his fathers life and career shape Carrolls
What photographs in the book seem of particular importance? What is their
significance in the progression of James Carrolls life?
Several men play important roles and have profound influences, both positive
and negative, at key points in Carrolls life. Who are these men
and what are their roles and influences?
In chapter 3, Carroll writes that [presidential] inaugurations
had been like a sacrament of the streets to me, rituals of rebirth,
and he later refers to the holy mysteries of Washington.
What other religious or liturgical terminology is used to characterize
political and social events, places, and people? What effect does the
use of this terminology have?
What biblical allusions and images occur in the book? How do they enhance
Carrolls narrative and our understanding of his story?
Does Carroll succeed, at the books conclusion, in achieving the
acceptance and forgiveness and affirmation that, in chapter 4,
he longs to bestow on his own younger self?
In chapter 5, Carroll identifies three distinct but
religious, political&emdash;that I underwent as a Paulist. Does
he convincingly demonstrate the occasions and nature of each of these
revolutions as the book proceeds?
In chapter 6, Carroll refers to the worship of false gods, the
making of idols as the sin to watch out for. What
does he mean by this? Can you identify the false gods and idols to which
What bearing on his personal story do Carrolls narratives of events
outside his own direct experience or observation have (e.g., political
corruption in 1930s Chicago, the FBIs harassment of Martin Luther
King)? Are they necessary to his, and our, understanding of his experience?
The words priest, poet, and prophet
can be applied, individually or together, to specific persons who appear
in Carrolls narrative. Who are these priests, poets, and prophets,
and how do they embody the qualities of each role?
Does Carroll present a coherent picture of the true dynamics of his
family, including his own relationships with his mother and four brothers?
Does he focus too narrowly on his relationship with his father?
On the books final page, Carroll makes a number of statements
that reflect on both his life and his book. How does each of these statements
relate to everything that has come before?
War had come down to war between us. I saw the lesson of it clear:
we both lost.
The broadly political is always personal for me.
The story is a victory over the need to be victorious.
Born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in Washington, D.C.,
where his father was an Air
Force general and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, James
Carroll was educated at Washingtons Priory School and at an American
high school in Wiesbaden, Germany. He attended Georgetown University
before entering St. Pauls College, the Paulist Fathers seminary,
where he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees. Carroll has been a civil
rights worker, an antiwar activist, and a community organizer in Washington
and New York. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1969.
Carroll served as Catholic chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974. During
that time, he studied poetry with George Starbuck and published books
on religious subjects and a book of poems. He was also a columnist for
the National Catholic Reporter (19721975) and was named
Best Columnist by the Catholic Press Association. For his writing on
religion and politics he received the first Thomas Merton Award from
Pittsburghs Thomas Merton Center in 1972.
Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer, and in 1974 was a playwright-in-residence
at the Berkshire Theater Festival. His plays have been produced at the
BTF and at Bostons Next Move Theater. In 1976 he published his
first novel, Madonna Red, which was followed byamong
others Mortal Friends (1978), Prince of Peace (1984),
and Memorial Bridge (1991). The City Below (1994) is now
available in a Houghton Mifflin trade-paperback edition. He has written
for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, and his
op-ed column appears weekly in the Boston Globe
James Carroll lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, and
their two children.
Like many writers, I really only have
one story to tell. In my case, it is
a father-son story. Appropriate enough, I guess, since, as I say, my
way into it was through the father-son story of God and Jesus.
All my stories are about people falling short. An American Requiem is
the story of my own.
For me, prayer is handing over to God the things we cant carry by our
selves. In this case, I feel like Im handing over to whoever reads
the book what I couldnt carry by myself. Publishers
Weekly, May 27, 1996