Forgive Me Father

Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy memoir has a fun hook: the author's father is a Catholic priest because of a loophole where married converts to Catholicism who were already clergy can become a priest. Lockwood's unusual upbringing is the focus of the book, where the conceit of the story is that she and her husband, down on their luck, move in with her parents in the church housing.

Priestdaddy is a buzzy, fun read. Lockwood is internet famous, so she's funny and readable, and notable for her poetry, so the writing is lyrical and important. That said, the humor often seems nervous, almost defensive, especially early on, weighed down with observational internetty quippiness (not unlike that last bit of non-English) (sometimes it seems the internet is either trolling, snark or humor, and the tone here definitely hits those last two, even if snark is somewhat stale). Later, when things get deep, the poetry weighs in a different way: weighing down the breezy flow of a quick read — stuff like "A sky rose up behind my eyes when I looked at him, a wide sky of clear and ruthless seeing, with a short stunted tree of compassion twisting in the middle of it" — prose that makes you zone out for the next couple of paragraphs while you ponder what exactly that meant. It's not a great fit.

Priestdaddy solves what my very literal mind perseverates on when it comes to memoir writing, which is the yarn-spinning fungibility of truth. I'm the person who is relentlessly asking "Wait, did that really happen?" My take is that the world is much funnier if things really happened the way it is said to have gone down, versus a David Sedaris segment. Lockwood is attuned to this, and there's a magical moment in "The Cum Queens of Hyatt Place" chapter where she literally steps outside the building to look back in at her mother, who is silently arguing with a hotel manager about a stained comforter. She looks in through the window and writes: "The scene begins to unfold, and it's more dramatic than even I expected," as she conveys this crazy telling of what her mother said to the manager. It's a great visual of a yarn being spun.

On the other hand, somewhere around the middle of Priestdaddy, everyone involved in it — Lockwood, her parents, her husband, her siblings — become self-aware that they're in a memoir, which is when the thing slows down and becomes kind of irrelevant — or at least you start to question the point of the book. She's meticulous about taking notes for the book, and writing about how she's taking notes for the book, and the people she talks to are suddenly concerned with the way they come across in the book, to the point where she acknowledges that her irascible father — the book's title — has probably smoothed his rough edges for the book. It's silly to question why a book exists — books exist because someone paid someone else to write something — but at the very least it seems like she missed out on some of the promise of the blurb. The last chapter is a trip with her mother to Key West — the implication seems to be that it's the result of a windfall from her writing — and . . . not really sure what that's about, but I suppose if you ask whether a book "goes somewhere" this chapter certainly does that.

This being a book about a priest in the Catholic church in this millennium, I suppose it's obvious that a reader would be suspicious about certain details that make Michael Keaton seek to perfect a Boston accent. Don't worry, Priestdaddy gets there, though not right away. When it does happen, it feels almost vulgar, like she's been waiting to tee up the revelation. Maybe not vulgar, but at least like a 9/11 story. Nothing is direct experience more than it's adjacent knowledge, if that makes sense. She makes similar (though less direct) references to Ferguson and 9/11 (as a matter of fact), as well as the sudden death of one of the church's custodians; the writing reaches out toward the topics, like someone dipping their hand into the wind on the interstate, sort of like in a music video, or a Volkswagen commercial.

It's as if she's able to wave away any hint of complicity by taking it on firsthand, regardless of the magnitude (though maybe these days everyone is meant to be culpable for everything). The effect, however, comes off as almost glib — an aside about an old priest who skeeved out her family many years back and who was sent away is wedged in uncomfortably alongside quips and poetical musings: "A real observation suddenly interrupts the flow of toy ones."

I couldn't quite put my finger on the tone until I saw Lena Dunham's Harvey Weinstein op-ed, which nails it:

In the fall of 2016, I performed at a benefit for Hillary Clinton organized by the Weinstein Company. I had heard the rumors. I felt that going onstage under his aegis was a betrayal of my own values. But I wanted so desperately to support my candidate that I made a calculation. We've all made calculations, and saying we're sorry about those calculations is not an act of cowardice. It's an essential change of position that could shift the way we do business and the way women regard their own position in the workplace. I'm sorry I shook the hand of someone I knew was not a friend to women in my industry.

Yes, we've all made "calculations" — but it seems that time was we silently lugged them around with us and didn't think to unpack them so breezily. I don't know if it's a generational thing or what, but there's a type of sincerity that almost borders on insincerity, if that makes any sense. Like Eddie Haskell in a negative image effect, and just as smarmy.

Posted: October 12th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: