But The Churchgoer is more than a mystery novel: it’s a meditation on making sense of a broken world when you’ve failed at every meaningful thing you’ve tried to do with your life. This would be a tall order for the most accomplished novelist — that The Churchgoer is Patrick Coleman’s first novel makes it even more impressive.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Earlier this year, the team that created True Detective optioned The Churchgoer for a television series. I talked to Coleman about his book, and the excitement around it, via email.
JIM RULAND: The Churchgoer follows some conventions of the detective novel, while ignoring others. What was your intention when you set out to write the book?
PATRICK COLEMAN: It started with this notion that the lone detective figure shared a lot of DNA with the American evangelical pastor, a kind of person that I’d known as a younger man. They have a similar kind of moral stance toward the world, a presumption of moral rightness or righteousness against a fallen world and a culture that doesn’t care. So I thought, “Oh, sure, a detective story with an ex-pastor as the protagonist. I can write that in a summer.” That was, hmm, 2009 or 2010?
Did the book evolve?
In the first draft, I tried to write a straight-up potboiler — more for fun than anything, to see if I could do it. But in reading more and more crime fiction and then in writing it, I was getting more drawn to the elegiac, existential strains, like Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon’s roman durs, and less with, I don't know, things like Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley books. That’s not a knock on her books, but more about finding my own sensibility. I wasn’t as interested in gunplay or lots of gratuitous sexual violence. I couldn’t write it because it wasn’t in me to write. I tried. It came out badly. But the other stuff, I kept getting drawn back into, and wanted to deepen. I became obsessed with first-person noir as a confession narrative, with the fallen pastor as a modern Marlowe, and with trying to bring together — this sounds absurd, in a way, but it’s honest — lessons from Chandler and St. Augustine, Simenon and Kierkegaard, Highsmith and Walker Percy. That’s one of the things I’d loved in Chandler, anyway; The Long Goodbye is not all that much about crime, really, but it is a grief-filled argument with the world from a writer who was watching his wife slowly die.
Your protagonist, Mark Haines, is a former pastor. Did you know from the start that this was going to be a key part of the story?
I thought it’d be a quirk of backstory, a way to lean into the social dynamics of San Diego I wanted to explore. Like a detective who’s a bird watcher, or whatever, and there’s a murderer that uses Audubon’s Birds of America as a weapon.
But I have a way of taking small things absurdly seriously, so Haines’s background grew and grew and grew in importance as I revised the book. I’m a reviser. The book didn’t become a shade of what it ended up as until the fourth or fifth draft, at least. I was playing around with using Chandler’s revising method — on each page only underlining a few phrases or moments that are good, setting that page to one side, and then rewriting everything that isn’t underlined. As a way to take another run at it, to improvise your way into something maybe a little more surprising, or interesting, or complicated.
Your affinity for Raymond Chandler is really coming through. Were you always a big fan, or did you come to appreciate him more through your research?
My father-in-law gave me Chandler when I was leaving on a trip, and that was the conversion moment: reading Chandler on long train rides. That was total fan-ishness (though not without some complicated feelings, of course). I’d grown up not really among readers, had found genre fiction as a younger person, and I didn’t really understand those kind of distinctions — to the degree that when I left for college, I got The Lord of the Rings because I thought I might be finally ready for “real literature.” College didn’t beat genre out of me, but discovering poetry and “literary” fiction and, being young and insecure, I kind of put those books away for a long time. So coming back to it, through Chandler, was really revelatory. What writers could do in those styles, using those tools.
Oceanside is a rich setting for a novel because there are so many disparities on display: the natural beauty of the ocean, the ostentatious wealth of yachts in the harbor, and the invisible architecture of the military industrial complex of Camp Pendleton. Why do you think so few, if any, novels before yours had made use of this setting?
I don’t know. It’s easy to just drive through on the way between the bigger cities of L.A. and San Diego. Chandler repeatedly described anything between the two as essentially nothing, “monotonous as a sailor’s chanty.” In Playback, Oceanside is noted only as the place the superhighway now bypasses. When Brit Bennett’s The Mothers came out, I was so thrilled — a brilliant Oceanside novel. But in most other stories, it has a walk-on role. It’s where the big show in Bring It On is staged. We have the Top Gun house. It gets name-checked in a Tom Waits song, and it’s where an affair takes place in a James McMichael poem. And Animal Kingdom is set there, though it’s an Aussie transplant and, I’d argue, not really all that much about Oceanside itself.
I love Oceanside. It’s such a bizarre, complicated place. It’s got a little bit of everything. I’ve been held up there twice. Almost drowned surfing at the harbor and at the pier. Had hands laid on me at a punk show, where later they invited us to speak in tongues. Had a spiritual encounter with a harbor seal. California is a state of transplants, at least outside the native communities, and the military presence amplifies that in Oceanside. It shapes the religious character, too. And the city is still trying to make itself into, I don’t know, Huntington Beach. (What a weird dream, right?) But it’s always going to be Oceanside. You could spend your whole life writing Oceanside stories. Did you know Murph the Surf is from Oceanside? I just found that out, and I keep thinking about it, saying to myself, “Of course.”
It’s surprising there isn’t more of San Diego in Tom Waits’s songbook since he grew up here.
I do love that both Tom Waits and John Baldessari come from National City. There are a few good San Diego songs, though. And did you see, last year RuPaul and Tony Hawk were San Diego’s contributions to the California Hall of Fame? Those are good additions.
I did not, but they are! And they both have cool connections to the punk scene. Tony helped popularize Bad Religion by including their music on his video game. And he’s one of the faces in the crowd on the cover of the Circle Jerks debut Group Sex. RuPaul’s production company is in the same building that used to house the infamous L.A. punk club The Masque, and he’s preserved the graffiti from all those years ago.
And it was San Diegan Taylor Steele featuring Bad Religion, Pennywise, Strung Out, No Knife, and Blink-182 in his surf videos that had a huge effect popularizing those bands, too. Did you see this documentary, Momentum Generation? I was thinking about those myths that keep men isolated and alone while watching that. It’s about that 1990s generation of pro surfers, and there’s this legendary moment: the high-five between Kelly Slater and Rob Machado at the Pipe Masters in 1995. There’s as much debate about how to interpret that moment — a non-competitive moment of bro empathy, or a strategic move on Slater’s part to win at all costs — as Judas’s kiss in the Bible.
I haven’t seen it. There aren’t any punks in The Churchgoer, but there are some Christian thugs, which is either oxymoronic or redundant depending on your point of view. Where did those guys come from?
They’re a bit of invention, though rooted in this real thing: the evangelicals who “bask in God’s technicalities,” as Haines puts it. I had a youth group leader, a seemingly sweet dude, and racist as hell — openly. Friends who’d argue God was okay with these drugs but not those ones, these kinds of premarital sex but not that one. They’d create little pockets for bad behavior via creative interpretation of God’s commandments, and especially if you were male there was a sense from the elders that it was permissible, maybe even something to be proud of, as a rite of passage. Most of the adult (male) leaders were “born again” after some years of bad behavior themselves and sounded proud to tell us about the deeds of old life, in the context of the larger conversion narrative of their lives. (Much, much less so for young women.) So I could imagine some of these young men drifting into a similar spot. One of the things I’m working on these days explores that more fully.
And don’t forget, San Diego’s Christian scene produced a metal singer who tried to order a hit man to take out his wife. Contradictions are just fine here.
Yeah, and his band was just nominated by the utterly inconsequential San Diego Music Awards. With respect to surfing, is the lone surfer a stand-in for the stranger who comes to town that’s so prevalent in Westerns? The more I think about it, The Churchgoer matches up nicely with Western tropes and Haines is a hired gun …
Those myths are there, yes — the lone ranger, the lone detective, the lone surfer. And they’re bound up in some nasty things about being a man, and being right, isolated, sufficient unto himself, a conqueror. Even for the surfer. The lone surfer is the one who conquers Mother Nature. Those kinds of myths are so alluring, especially for men who aren’t given much else to emulate. But they’re so harmful, too. Personally and socially.
As a recovering alcoholic, I’m curious as to why you made Haines such a poor example of someone in recovery. And by poor I mean realistic. It’s easy for Haines to stay sober; it’s everything else that’s difficult.
I like that way you put it: “It’s easy for Haines to stay sober; it’s everything else that’s difficult.” That’s the trick, isn’t it?!
Look, the alcoholic is another trope in crime fiction. I know. But you can’t escape yourself. I’m drawn to trying to understand that mindset, those behaviors. And belief and addiction and programs that help people maintain sobriety, they all are trying to treat or medicate some deeper wounds. Finding a higher power. Finding a way to see beyond yourself. Getting out of your own head or your own pain. Isn’t that religion as a whole, though? As I dug deeper into Haines, and his turn away from God, and the way his disbelief hardened in that fall, it seemed to me that had a lot to do with his drinking, with being in some sense a dry drunk. It was another axis along which his internal conflict was pushed and pulled by the events of the story.
If you’re comfortable, I’m really curious: what was reading Haines as a bad alcoholic in recovery like?
To be honest, a little hairy. Sobriety is defined by what it is not. Abstaining from drugs and alcohol is the main feature, right? But sobriety is also an abstraction like faith, grace, or love. Abstractions require work. If you don’t work on your marriage, you’re not going to be “in love” for very long. Same deal with sobriety. So there’s always this fear I’m not putting in enough work to reify my sobriety.
Haines is a case study in how not to be a sober person. He’s isolated himself from others. He’s a man without a community, and that’s tough. But his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter is a disaster. Not to give anything away, but he’s consumed with resentment toward his daughter when she literally saved his life. Men like Haines are obsessed with the myth of “starting over.” That’s great for the person experiencing a rebirth, but not so great for those left in the wreckage of the old life. So here’s my question for you: Is Haines capable of making amends to his family? Is this a man who can say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it?
Couldn’t agree more with your description — and that “myth of starting over” is similar to the idea of being “born again,” isn’t it?
Very similar and, in my opinion, both are tantalizing but bogus fantasies.
I’ve heard from a lot of Christians who felt I had an ax to grind with Christianity. But it’s Haines who is angry at the church and the people he left behind, not me. His anger is also limiting, also debilitating, and shares a lot in common with who he was as a pastor, who he was as a drunk. He may make some solid points from time to time, but I certainly don’t think he has found a better way to move through the world when we meet him at the start of the book.
Because here’s the thing: I think if you took someone like Philip Marlowe, and you really got him talking, you’re going to think he's an asshole by the end of that conversation. In those Chandler books, he says just enough to be cynical but still charming. He plays the game of likability just well enough. He’s more a mythic haze of an attitude than a character. I didn’t want Haines to have that out. I wanted to let him run his mouth, as a narrator and a character, and then let that paint him into a corner. That’s as much the plot as the search for the missing person.
So can he make amends by the end of the book?
I have my answer to that, but maybe it’s good to leave it open to each reader. I’ll say this, though. When I found him saying this line, I felt like we’d both broken through into some new perspective: “I’d made a dogma of hate: hating myself, hating others; hating God, hating being without a god; hating the world, hating the lack of anything but the world.” And for a San Diegan, there may be nothing more intimate than buying a stranger a burrito.
Very true! The Churchgoer was recently optioned by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto with Matt McConaughey for a series called Redeemer. How did this come about, and will you be involved?
My agent, Tim Wojcik at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency, coordinated with my now-film/TV agents Flora Hackett and Sylvie Rabineau at WME. They liked the book, and started showing it around, and it all took on a life of its own. I’m thrilled and honored, and very much still surprised by the outcome.
I’ll be a consulting producer for the show, but I’m excited to see how those two artists, and all the many others who collaborate to produce narrative television, will make it their own and do something interesting with it. I loved True Detective and think McConaughey is a brilliant actor. I’m anticipating all of it to be very surreal for me.
The series is going to be set in Texas. Does that suggest it’s going to be very different?
Time will tell! But also, time is a flat circle. We’ll have to wait and see …
Jim Ruland's new book, Do What You Want with Bad Religion, will be published August 18, 2020. He lives and works in San Diego.
Banner image: "Neon Cross II" by Oliver Thompson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.