Minna Proctor writes as one of the faithless, whereas David Plante’s memoir is utterly steeped in the religion of his youth. American Ghosts depicts the novelist’s childhood in the wilds of—well—Providence, Rhode Island. Raised in a small parish of French-Canadian Catholics who live in isolation from their Yankee neighbors, Plante spends many trembling nights imagining that his French and Blackfoot Indian ancestors lurk in the darkness outside his bedroom. As soon as he is old enough, Plante flees the church (as young people so often do) and the country, traveling Europe in search of sensuality, adventures, and otherness. He finds all three in one convenient package when he hooks up with a man named Oci, his first love as well as his portal to freedom.
Plante begins to write relentlessly, jotting down concrete images of what he sees as a kind of secular substitute for religion. He’s looking for a way to communicate the inexpressible secrets of the world by making “the invisible visible.” Along the same lines, Plante presumably hopes this memoir can extract sublime meaning from his own sprawling life. He succeeds in the beautifully somber and precise passages about his youth, particularly in the electric portraits of two very different women: a nun named Mère Sainte Flor and Gloria, a lounge singer Plante meets while he (and she) drift through Europe. Unfortunately, the dusky perfume of these enticing early chapters dissipates as Plante marches into angsty adulthood, struggling awkwardly to purge all traces of his old Canuck God from his new life as an intellectual. But Plante’s past exerts such magnetic force that instead of trying to outrun it, he eventually inters it in this ambivalent, melancholy casket of words.