The character who is at the heart of things in The John Wood Case is Wood's son, Phillip. Strangely enough, Ruth Suckow leaves his parents, who are responsible for the novel's great fall, quite unexamined. Honestly, did John Wood pilfer funds because he loved his semi-invalid wife so dearly? And what about Minnie herself?--forever sickly, forever weak. What's with that?
About them, Ms. Suckow is mum. What we know is that Mr. Wood siphoned off funds from his employer to pay for spa trips and other sweet blessings he lavished upon his oddly enchanting wife. Whether there was another woman in Omaha or too many clandestine trips to gambling dens we never know.
It's Phillip, their son, who is closest to a real protagonist. Suckow takes us into the consciousness of several of the characters hurt by Wood's sins, but most closely examined is their only child.
Everyone loves Phillip, just as everyone admires his father. He is the valedictorian of his high school class, a star athlete, mature beyond his years, solidly and deeply religious--beyond reproach. No one in town doubts that someday he'll go places, and he dreams he'll someday be a candidate for the Presidency. There's more than a pinch of arrogance to him--he's not sure that local girls are quite good enough for him; but that arrogance is so seemingly faint that it doesn't prompt others to raise their eyebrows when he comes around. Town and church are both untiringly proud of Phillip Wood.
When the truth is revealed however, Phillip is devastated. He loved his father--well, love may be stretching it a bit since John Wood was desperately in love with Minnie that there may not have been room in his heart for anyone else, even his son.
Piety is the real subject of The John Wood Case--what it is and how it operates. Because of his father's failure, Phillip drops faith like a bad habit, totally disillusioned because if his father, a true believer, was a sinner, then who could he believe in? Think Young Goodman Brown.
The dilemma is perfectly understandable because predictably human--Phillip's faith was, in essence, more deeply rooted in his respect for his father and the accolades of the community than it was in the Lord God almighty. Phillip is immensely precocious and marvelously talented--but he's still a kid.
"It is somehow fitting that the most intense spiritual experience of my life," says Christian Wiman, in My Bright Abyss, "should slip out of my memory like a dream." He's talking about the moment of his being born again, the day of his accepting Jesus into his life, an event he says he doesn't remember clearly. "I grew up in a culture that encouraged conversions--quiet conversions, but still--in early adolescence," he says.
But the efficacy of that momentous event got lost, he says. A ton of us, I'm sure, go through something approximating what Wiman is describing. Well-meaning parents and teachers and friends encourage dutiful displays of piety--and with good reason. Sometimes such promptings appear to work beautifully.
But sometimes they don't. One could argue, I think, that the claim Wiman made when a kid of being "born again," did work finally, even if he wandered in the desert of his own unbelief longer than he or anyone would have guessed he would.
Sometimes people say the only thing we'll take along into eternity are our children--and that's right, after a fashion. Still, we really don't really take them along, because any listing of the Lord's mysterious ways include the unique manner by which his Holy Mapquest pencils out the path of each of our individual lives. What's that personal can never be predictable.
Ruth Suckhow clearly has no doubts about the faith of Phillip Smith, even if Phillip Smith does at the end of the novel. "Salvation belongs to the Lord," saith King David, who had to be a Calvinist.
Some things just are and forever will be mystery.