The Old Priest
(University of Pittsburgh)
You remember the old priest: you knew him back when you were at the Catholic boys school and you keep up with him long after you went off and tried to become a writer and gave up and became a blackjack dealer instead but you always came back to visit because he was dry and astute, a charming old wit --- his cigarette holder, drinking good wine and remembering his good times in Europe, where he was to go to the Sorbonne but the Jesuits had other plans for him.
Now that he's getting older he repeats himself but you got in the habit for so many years of visiting him with your newest latest girlfriends that you keep on doing so, introducing him to the shy one, or the gold digger, or Mildred who after she meets him, whispers that "all Catholic school boys are gay."
The old priest is a philosopher, a man who will explain to her the difference between "ecstasy" (the noun) and ekstasis. He says that this last means to "stand outside oneself," to "escape from the prison of the body."
Isn't that what everybody wants, after all?
he asks her. "I guess I've never thought about it that way," she says.
The second person singular narrator here is a bit of a philosopher too. He tells us that "there are those who stand inside history and those who stand outside, like beggars at the gate." It's "like penetrating time," he suggests. He reveals to us, the readers, that he is writing a book "of eternal and meaningful recurrence," and it is going to be called The Old Priest.
So here we are in the midst of this old writer's trick, that of writing a story about writing a story while, at the same moment, you're in the story. The novel is published, and it is a short one for people who would like to say that "they've read a novel but don't want to spend much time actually doing it."
The author reports that books about priests are hot now because of the sex scandals in all the newspapers. The editor of The Old Priest likes the book because the writer's subject, the old man, is not necessarily evil nor good, but rather, represents "the fine line down the middle." Only we don't know if this is so because as we arrive to the final pages, we find out that, indeed, the writer, as a young man, stayed up all one night with the priest, was seduced, presumably, and later recalls, fondly, when they went swimming in the ocean where the old man sang "O Mio Babbino Caro," and plunged "up and down in the easy current."
You can still see his face as it was in the early sunlight, spouting water from both nostrils and singing in Italian. Later you cooked cheese omelets then lay together side by side on the pullout sofa that was his bed, holding hands.
§ § §
I often wonder about people who edit collections of short stories, wonder what they think when they put them together. Do they think, "I'd better put this one at the beginning because that's what most people will do, start out with the first story, and this one is hot." And it is.
And then they think: maybe we should put the second best at the end because some people (e.g., your reviewer) start anthologies from the back, work their way forward. (I also do this with "The New Yorker" because it's too much work to start at the beginning with its fat calendar and then What's Going on About Town ... a "town" where I don't live, never have, and never will.)
The editor who arranged The Old Priest obviously read my mind because the first story is like a perfect sweet onion, with circles of different casings, a ring of happenings that befall a man who is neither wonderful nor awful, all embedded in a story that may turn out to be a novel about a story about a novel concerning an elegant Jesuit who smokes cigarettes with one of those fey ivory holders and drinks perhaps too much very good wine and is an elegant conversationalist: drunk, sober, stoned.
He also has an eye for the young men, and we get to meet two of them here ... one of them such a dandy narrator, neither too worshipful nor too judgmental. I mean, how can you judge a priest who loves you and who you, in turn, one fateful summer evening, you fed him magic mushrooms so that hair sprouts from his hands and face and out his nostrils and drove him half-mad. Though he never blamed you for that crazy-making trip. And who is the seducer in this story, anyway?
§ § §
Then there is the last story, "The Burnie-Can." The narrator's mother caught the dinosaur in a plastic laundry basket, and his grandmother saw it too, but when they lifted it up to look at it, it ran away, into the Burnie-Can where they incinerate all the garbage. Later, it was nowhere to be found. No one thought the two of them were lying: "People seemed to like the idea that such a thing was possible, my mother and grandmother were known to be truthful women, and there really was the possibility that they'd seen a dinosaur, or at least a creature that exactly resembled one."
It's a quirky tale. The children not only get to live with this wonder, they also have to put up with their father. At night, "we'd put on their pajamas, each one of us in our own bed, and then my father would come in and spank us."
The spankings varied with my father's mood, but we had one every night, as he liked to say, whether we needed it or not ... When it was over Ailie [his sister] and I would both be bawling our heads off and laughing simultaneously, a sort of emotional confusion that was a cross between the shame that accompanies senseless violence and the exhilarating silliness stirred up by a pillow fight.
This regular abuse comes to be no more strange than seeing a dinosaur in the back yard. The vision of the monster also affects the whole family. Mother stops taking diet pills, grandfather stops shooting rabbits, and father stops beating the two children at night. "The sighting of the dinosaur was somehow restorative, though nobody ever figured out how."
§ § §
There are eight stories here and, as I have told you, the first and the last are the high points. Many of the rest have to do with working as a dealer in a casino in Atlantic City or in Nevada. Because such a job is boring, oh-so-boring, and the prose can turn boring, too, but there are enough oddments wandering about that Wallace manages to keep us, and keep everything moving right along.
It's that old paradox: how do you write a story about a boring job (or a boring person) without being boring. One way is with tricks. Classical allusions pop up in the oddest places here in the blackjack pit:
"I am dying, Egypt," Cleo said.
"Well then drop dead already," Slater said.
"They will fire us hence like foxes," Caesar said.
"Life in the postmodern," Slater said. "You never know which century you're standing in around here. Ah, well," Slater said, "Forth on the godly sea."
The two men went on break together and sat in the employees cafeteria, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups.
"I'm having an affair," Miles said to Slater. "I'm seeing someone."
"Yeah, so?" Slater asked. "Want a medal?"
The only surprise here is a rare misstep by the author, usually so careful. He wants to show Miles Slater, made dull and stupid by his blackjack dealer job, how he drifts away from Claire, his loving wife. But he chooses a new woman for Miles who comes from another planet: a scrawny item by the name of Patsy who dances in a sex shop and lives in a trash-strewn house, "tilted sideways on its cracked foundation."
Patsy lets her boss burn holes in her back with a cigarette. Miles says to her, "I love you," and
Patsy blinked hard and clutched at herself as if a chill had just run through her.
Just like the reader, wondering what has gotten into our usually droll and lively friend Miles; and, indeed, and as well, our droll and friendly and reliable author.--- Lolita Lark