by Rob Jacklosky
“The Old Priest,” the novella from which Anthony Wallace’s excellent collection of short fiction takes its name, is in large part about the telling of stories: it explores why we need them and examines the fictions we are content to tell ourselves until the truth becomes undeniable.
Narrated in second person, from the perspective of a young man, a would-be writer, “The Old Priest” tells the story of the lifelong relationship between the young man and the colorful, unnamed Jesuit, the “Old Priest.” The unnamed protagonist begins as an impressionable youth who brings a parade of girlfriends, and one wife, to meet the priest, who was his high school French teacher and senior guidance counselor; he ends as something of a seedy, or at least tweedy, old bachelor—a Mr. Chips who can’t quite be trusted with his students. In this way, he comes to resemble the priest, and at the very end, he understands that their relationship was not quite what he thought it was.
The young man and the priest stay in touch over the years for reasons that are not clear at the start of the novella. The priest tells stories of glittering parties, of bullfights in Spain with Ava Gardner in attendance. He’s a charmer, and his stories are calculated to impress the women whom the young man, year after year, brings around. He does this, to impress them and for the Old Priest’s approval. The priest has an air of mystery about him; he’s in touch with the glamorous, the ancient. When he claims to have been involved with the source material for “The Exorcist,” the protagonist says, “He knew people who knew people who knew the Devil! Talk about being on the inside track!”
A Jesuit priest has a cachet that perhaps isn’t so easy to understand in 2014 (this portion of the novella is about the 1970s)—a cachet that speaks especially to a certain kind of Catholic schoolboy from New Jersey—and Anthony Wallace gets all of this exactly right. As someone who fits that New Jersey Catholic-schoolboy profile, I can attest to that.
The priest has led a glamorous life. The narrator, on the other hand, complains that he can’t write because he “needs a membership card that provides an entrée into the historical moment.” In this way, Wallace voices a common writers’ anxiety. The protagonist is waiting for the invitation to enter history. And the priest seems to be that invitation. The protagonist tells us, through the second-person narration, that he sees the priest as a figure who can “lead you into the promised land of the historical moment, the instant in time in which history is happening and you are in history, you yourself present in the unique and meaningful moment: the moment in time when everything makes sense.”
After years of working in casinos and asserting that he’s given up on writing, the narrator writes his novel; in a metafictional twist, it’s also called “The Old Priest,” and the priest is the hero. In that novel, the priest is always ready with his charming anecdotes and Tanqueray martinis, exerting an outsized influence and causing the reader to wonder whether something else ever went on between this priest and the young man. Even as the young man’s editor pretends to like the book’s subtlety, he wonders:
I like the way you leave the whole sex thing ambiguous . . . that’s really the heart of the matter. The idea of the priest as traditionally representing good is juxtaposed against the current idea of . . . the priest as representing evil. And you walk the fine line down the middle. Very “Young Goodman Brown” of you.
But the editor really wants something to have happened. It would make the novel that much better, the editor tells him. The protagonist refuses to tell the editor and, for much of the story, to tell us.
By the end of the story, the priest’s standing as a truth-teller is compromised by his own clearly mixed motives in cultivating, captivating, and ultimately betraying the protagonist. It’s a mark of the novella’s subtlety that this betrayal is pointed out by the devotion of another of the priest’s protégés (the narrator’s successor) whose commitment to the priest has never wavered. The rest of the wonderful collection, though often fueled by similar betrayals, is generous in the humane treatment of the profane: unfaithful husbands, drug addicts, sex workers, strippers, toothless bartenders, hopeless gamblers, and men who might have been better, who sometimes find, and sometimes miss, their moments of grace.
Wallace’s life has been marked by dramatic shifts in direction and choices that change everything, and this is, unsurprisingly, a feature of his fiction. The narrator of “The Old Priest” moves from a dead-end life as a croupier in Atlantic City to become a published writer, landing finally as an English teacher: roughly the route Wallace has traveled. In the 1980s, after graduating from Lafayette College, Wallace worked at Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City, dealing blackjack and craps. He rose to become a pit boss (a middle manager of table games). Like one of his characters in his story “The Unexamined Life,” he was attracted to casinos because of a bad economy but also because it seemed like a more interesting alternative to 9-5 work. Like the character in “The Old Priest,” he was not writing and couldn’t quite fathom how he had ended up dealing blackjack.
In 1993 Wallace began to write fiction. Over the next few years he wrote and published stories. Then, in 1998, when he was 41 years old, he enrolled in Boston University’s graduate creative writing program. From croupier to MFA in a stroke. He has been a senior lecturer in American literature at B.U. for the last 13 years.
After a good run of publications with literary journals while teaching at B.U., Wallace then hit what he describes as a low point (though that low included the 2013 Pushcart Prize for “The Old Priest”). It was at that moment—in his mid-fifties, feeling that his progress had stalled and reevaluating his direction for the second time—that Amy Hempel chose The Old Priest as the 2013 winner of the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, resulting in its publication by the University of Pittsburg Press. The book was also a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction in 2014. More recently, “The Old Priest” was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
“It’s funny what you remember. What gets caught there,” the grandmother says to the protagonist of “The Snow Behind the Door.” In Wallace’s stories, literal things are caught in memory, often in the form of images. In this story, a grandmother retells the same stories over and over, to an audience that tends not to let on that they’ve heard them all before. The stories represent for her the fracturing of the family and are defined by odd and resonant images: Her discovery of her uncle’s affair is linked to the image of a man peeing in the street; the event of her brother being thrown out of the house is linked to an overturned table and “oysters in their shells scattered on the brick floor of the kitchen . . . mom sweeping them up with a straw broom”; the magic of the story “The Burnie-Can” hinges on the image of a tiny dinosaur appearing in a back yard. Similarly, images throughout the collection take on a magic, prophetic freight and interject an element of the fantastic.
Sometimes the images are from dreams. In the mesmerizing “Have You Seen this Girl,” the protagonist, Christine, dreams about a cute but vaguely threatening furry creature that must be appeased, or it will do something scary. “There is a furry little creature that follows me around in these dreams,” says Christine.
The creature acts like my pet, and I act friendly toward it, but I’m secretly afraid of it. It’s most important, though, that the creature never find out I’m scared of it. If it ever finds out, terrible things will happen, although I’m not sure, in terms of dream logic, what they will be.
The dreams coincidentally arrive when a cute, vaguely threatening actress named Darcy, her boyfriend Howard’s sister, comes to visit. Darcy, who has starred in Howard’s independent film, also titled “Have You Seen this Girl,” as a she-devil seductress (literally—she has cloven hooves and a vestigial tail), begins to seduce Christine’s friends, and Christine finds herself increasingly anxious and restive. Christine has a dream in which the furry monster, at its birthday party, asks for another piece of cake. Christine “wakes” from the dream to discover a naked Darcy in the living room talking to herself.
She squats down quickly, all the shadows in the room like jagged brushstrokes against the skinny thighs, the dimpled ass, the braided stump of a tail. When I open the door she stands up and I go to her. I touch her lips, stroke her tail. We sit together on the sofa, long into the night, the faintest brush of her hand or the flutter of an eyelash like something articulated for the first time.
The story continually shows us a dream vision that may be more truthful than the reality the characters are confronting. At one point, Christine, a former film student, says she’s given up on the “image as a fundamentally accurate representation of reality.” But the stories have not.
“The Upstairs Room,” the history of a now failed relationship, is a clever story that coils back on itself like a Möbius strip. The two characters, husband and wife, victimized by terrible jobs amid a landscape of dying towns, sometimes mistake a happy day for the promise of a happier future. It’s not that they don’t have happy days, but they don’t have many—by my count they have about three of them. The wife puts great store in these happy days. But the husband knows better: “Those [happy days] are the things that make up a life, I wanted to tell her, but they’re not all of life. You don’t get that every day.” Like many of Wallace’s stories, “The Upstairs Room” is a kind of historical document of the dark side of Southern New Jersey life in Atlantic City and the Pine Barrens. Even when Wallace’s characters run from New Jersey, they seem to end up in other bad places: the barrens of Nevada and the slums of New Mexico’s Indian reservations—and always, in seedy casinos.
Wallace himself grew up in South Philadelphia, but mostly the stories take place in the pine forests and scrub blueberry farms of South Jersey—home of the Jersey Devil, moonshine, meth, and desperation. In “The Burnie-Can,” the last of the collection’s eight stories, a few characters have mid- or late-life reversals, perhaps brought on by the magical appearance of a tiny dinosaur. The narrator says, “Most people, I find, do not become what they have all the while secretly planned on becoming, and it tickled my father that he’d been able to get it right.” What the heretofore dull father has become is a flashy serial adulterer in an Italian sports jacket and a two-tone aqua-and-pearl ’68 Thunderbird convertible who leaves his wife of 20 years and his two children. In “The Unexamined Life,” a man leaves his wife and child for a prostitute; and in “The City of Gold” 19-year-old April impulsively leaves her much older, mildly abusive boyfriend, Charlie, for an unsavory New Mexico croupier named Maurice Baltimore, who asks Charlie “how much?” upon meeting her and thrusts money into Charlie’s hand to buy her; he promises something much worse, rather than better.
But there’s a dignity in wrong-headed choices. The stories seem to endorse these transformations, even as the reader cringes, because they mean a character is at least making a choice. Characters who escape, no matter what they escape to, are to be admired. Despite their subjects, the stories are not depressing and are often funny. Or, as Wallace’s shrewder characters are fond of saying when they admire something, they are “solid.”
The protagonist of Wallace’s novella spends his long life trying to figure out what the Old Priest means to him; at the end, the story delivers the priest’s own exegesis on meaning in life and in books. The priest calls a book “a machine to think with.” And this book works that way. Like Flannery O’Connor’s work, which Wallace sometimes cites explicitly in these stories, the details gradually accumulate meaning until the character is faced with a final accounting of all he’s seen and experienced. This is certainly the case with “The Old Priest,” where, after the narrator’s many memories have accumulated to suggest one idea of the priest, the narrative retells the priest’s first visit, changing the way we should view him and the narrator. After staying up drinking and talking “high-minded talk until daybreak,” the priest quotes Shakespeare, and they “lay together side by side on the pullout sofa that was his bed, holding hands.”
After he left you decided the whole thing had been a terrible mistake. A few months later you went to see him in Philadelphia, to explain it. You walked along the cobblestone streets of Old City, sullen and intractable, refusing to hold his hand. “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” was his reply, gazing up into the leafless branches of the maple trees. Two lines of Shakespeare . . . to fix in place the simple but overwhelming fact: you loved another person even though you did your best to cancel it or turn it into something else, even if it was your right to cancel it out and even if it really was . . . something other than what you took it for at the time, whatever that was. The ending, then: you loved him, something you were in a big hurry to forget, but which he was in a bigger hurry to remember. For he loved you also. That is the one thing you seem most of all to avoid considering.
We leave that scene both knowing and not quite knowing what happened. Wallace’s stories, like the characters in them, obsess about history, revisit it, revise it, rehearse it, pore and puzzle over it, or claim to be excluded from it. In the most dramatic cases, as in Wallace’s own life, characters acting on some interior cue roll the dice, change their situations, and change the courses of (their) history. In fact, they are constantly on the lookout for cues, images, and signs. Very Flannery O’Connor of him, and in that way very Catholic. The Old Priest himself has grappled with how to make the sacred live in the profane world. He wants to find a way, we are told, to enact Flannery O’Connor’s dictum, “All is sacred, nothing profane.”
Fittingly, the last few pages of the novella deal directly with eternity and its relationship to the world. The priest has imagined eternity as
a place that contains everything that has ever been, every lost dog . . . every broken watch and burnt dinner . . . If eternity really is eternity, then nothing is ever lost. It’s all there, for all time, safe and whole within the sight of God.
The recapitulation of memory, the worrying over what’s lost and the value of small moments and images, are what redeem us. The Old Priest makes that seem possible.
Rob Jacklosky is Director of Writing and Professor of English at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. His scholarly publications include essays on Matthew Arnold and Frank Sinatra. He was a top-ten finalist in the Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest (judged by Colum McCann). A series of his comic essays appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sonora Review, Sendero, Dappled Things, Konundrum Literary Engine Review, The 92nd St. Y’s journal Podium, and Construction. His PhD is from Rutgers and his MA and BA are from New York University.
Homepage image photo credit: sara biljana (account closed) via photopin cc
Ava Gardner Photo by Paul Hesse – © 1978 Paul Hesse – Image courtesy mptvimages.com
Fuzzy toy photo credit: absolutely small via photopin cc