The Truest Pleasure Review

The Truest Pleasure
by Robert Morgan
Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1995. 334p

Author Bio
Robert Morgan was born in North Carolina in 1944. His parents were strict Baptists, but his father occasionally attended a Pentecostal church. He studied Mathematics and Engineering at the University of North Carolina before transferring to English.  He graduated from the MFA program at UNC in 1968. Since 1971, he has been teaching English and Creative Writing at Cornell University.

He has written 14 books of poetry, four collections of short stories, four novels, two non-fiction books, and one collection of essays.  His poetry and short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, and Poetry. In 2007 he won the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Thomas Wolfe Prize in 2008.  His second novel, Gap Creek, was selected to be part of Oprah’s Book club in 2000.

Morgan has stated that he believes religion is an important part of people’s lives that he wants to explore in his fiction, especially when he is writing about people in Appalachia. He suggests that religion has largely been left out of fiction about Appalachia and the south.  At the same time, he wants to be careful not to present a condescending portrayal of religion.  Instead, he wants to imagine what religious participants fell and think of their own practice.

Plot Description
Set in early 20th century North Carolina, the novel is the first person chronicle of Virginia (Ginny) Powell’s experiences of rural life with her father, siblings, husband, and children. She struggles to find a balance between the ecstatic highs of Pentecostal religious experiences and sex, and the mundane work of everyday life. This struggle causes conflict with her husband, who disapproves of her Pentecostal experiences.

Pentecostal Elements
The novel opens with Ginny at a Pentecostal service, speaking in tongues for the first time. It is presented as a kind of conversion experience for Ginny who has a new appreciation of God, and the world around her. While the language here is poetic, it is also similar to the language common in Pentecostal churches and recorded conversion narratives from the turn of the century.  It isn’t long before the ecstasy of the service is lost as Ginny returns to the mundane work on the farm. Throughout the novel, Ginny periodically returns to Pentecostal revival meetings and re-experiences the ecstasy, but it never sustains her. Meanwhile, it becomes a lingering point of contention between her and her husband, who believes that reasonable people should not act the way Pentecostal people act.

There are two other experiences which provide Ginny with a similar kind of ecstasy. The first is sex.  The text explicitly links the sexual and religious experiences, not only because Ginny uses religious language to describe her experiences, but because she says the feeling she gets from sex is the same she gets when she speaks in tongues. She even describes sex as a kind of praise. The second is her experience with nature.  This is much less explicit in the novel, and happens only rarely.

Critical Response
In a New York Times review, Richard Bausch suggests that The Truest Pleasure is mostly successful.  Bausch suggests that Morgan’s poetic style works well in some places during crisis points, but at other points works against the novel of the narrative, creating a sense of an static, overly composed narrative voice.

In a 2010 article for the Souther Quarterly, Robert D Denham argues that Morgan leads both readers and Ginny to the realization that “service is also praise,” and that this service is the “truest pleasure.” Denham clearly links this to a theology of immanence. Curiously, he also reads the novel alongside classical mythology and classical narrative theory.
Denham, Robert D.  "'Service Is Also Praise': Recognition in Robert Morgan's The Truest Pleasure". Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South: 47.3 ( 2010 Spring), pp. 129-141.