'Hallelujah Anyway': Anne Lamott's conflicted message for a conflicted nation

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

By Anne Lamott


Riverhead. 176 pp. $20.

Reviewed by Ann Bauer

Reading Anne Lamott's new book of essays is like sitting down with a girlfriend you haven't seen for quite a while. At times, you're perfectly in tune: You know this woman; you trust her. Other times, you roll your eyes and wonder whether perhaps she has spent too much time obsessing about the Kardashians. Still, you read on.

There's no denying that Lamott is a superb writer. Her voice is one of a kind: deft, folksy, cheerfully hostile. Hallelujah Anyway is a slim manual on faith, mixing theology and psychology with personal grievances and life stories. Organized into nine chapterlike essays around a loose concept Lamott calls "mercy," the book is peppered with cryptic spiritual takeaways like, "Maybe mercy and grace belong together, like cream and sugar."

But Lamott stretches her theme to the breaking point. For the purpose of this book, mercy is defined and endlessly redefined as both the giving and the receiving of general forgiveness, compassion, kindness, tolerance, understanding, charity, and/or acceptance. At one point, Lamott writes: "We might call the presence of mercy 'soul,' some sort of life principal within, behind my eyes, that helps me notice things, be sensitive, feel the kick or salve of love."

I'm sorry. What?

The problem with casting such a wide, vague net is that you can wedge practically anything into it. Stories about childhood trauma, traveling to Japan, Twitter rudeness - they're all here. Like American cuisine and liberal studies degrees, this all-encompassing mercy becomes bland and diluted.

Around Page 70, just when all seems muddled and brittle and lost, Lamott zings back into her signature crackling warmth. She is witty and funny and smart. Now the words and stories flow. And, blessedly, it is she: Anne, my old friend, telling stories so personal even a distant reader can relate.

She helps an elderly woman mourn the death of her son by suicide. She ends this section with a quiet prayer: "This is hard, but not as hard as it was for you here, weighed down by the anchors of so-called reality. So go now, go, unfettered." Words so clear and devastating and gorgeous, it's easy to forget the scramble that came before.

We're all struggling everyday sinners, she appears to be saying with Hallelujah Anyway. We're dumb and ill-behaved and often unattractive. Relax, my friend. Let's just cut one another some slack.

Bauer is a Minneapolis writer and author of the novel "Forgiveness 4 You." This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.