Pushcart 2013: Anthony Wallace, “The Old Priest” from The Republic of Letters

The Republic of Letters story art

The Republic of Letters story art

The old priest is a Jesuit, brainy and fey. He smokes Pall Malls fixed bayonet-style in an onyx and silver cigarette holder, and he crosses his legs at the knee. He tells stories as if he is being interviewed for a Public Television special on old priests. A small, guttural chuckle serves to launch one of his very interesting anecdotes: it’s a kind of punctuation that serves as transition, like a colon or dash. You bring your latest girl to see the old priest, you always bring your latest girl to see the old priest.

The good news: the story’s terrific, and it’s available online. The bad news: it’s surprisingly long for an online story – 12,000 words. And, oh, it’s in second person, both primary characters unnamed. To cap it off, the protagonist is, among other things, a writer. Given all those no-no’s, I’m surprised anyone anywhere ever published it, let alone that it ended up with a Pushcart prize, but that should tell you something: namely, it’s a damn fine story. And isn’t that always the point?

It’s a story about exactly what you think it’s about but it’s couched in the lifelong relationship between a wannabe-writer with no stories to tell, and a priest overflowing with stories – he once flamenco’d the night away in Spain, saw Ava Gardner at a bullfight. But it’s really at its heart about what we carry with us and how we finally lay it down: love in all its destructive glory.

It’s a story that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling it; the effect is in the reading. The structure is a spiral built around the protagonist’s friendship with the priest, his teacher in high school. The emotional ride, brought to a devastatingly perfect touch-down by the last paragraph, is spectacular, as the writer “circles the airport” throughout the story, getting closer with each pass but not landing until the final sentences.

Throughout the first half of the story, the priest tells his wild tales (come on, seeing Ava Gardner at a bullfight in Barcelona? That sounds like something borrowed from Hemingway) while the wannabe-writer bemoans his lack of life experience, the paucity of stories he has to tell. He eventually realizes he does, in fact, have stories to tell: the priest’s stories:

You call the book The Old Priest and you get an agent interested, and he gets a publisher interested. Priests old and otherwise are hot news that year because of the sex abuse scandal that is in all the headlines… It is written in the second person; it is “mannered, overstylized, derivative,” to quote one reviewer. As a writer you have some talent, most people seem to agree, but you also have an odd quirk that has proven a fairly severe limitation: you are only truly comfortable writing in the second person.
In fact, you wanted to change the title of your book to The Second Person, but the publisher didn’t want to do it and the book went out into the world as The Old Priest. “Old priests are what sells,” the editor told you, “not witty references to grammar books and Graham Greene. Let your character be the sap and you be the smart one.” He was smart, that editor, but he missed the reference to Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Also perhaps the second person as the conscience or moral self, now that you think of it. All the same, you liked that: “Grammar Books and Graham Greene” should really be the title of something, though nothing you will ever write.

Being a bit of a second-person fan, of course I loved this. But the theological reference, not to mention Graham Greene, are just for show: second person is necessary to distance the wannabe-writer from himself. It’s explicitly stated in that explanation about second person as moral self. I’m also reminded of Marko Fong’s term for this use of second person: “alienated first person.” I’m especially fond of this term applied to this story because the wannabe has all the experience he needs. But he can’t face his own experience, he’s still trying to process it throughout his life, so he keeps circling the airport.

I wasn’t optimistic when I started this story, seeing as I haven’t had a lot of luck with stories featuring priests; but within a page, I was hooked, and stayed there. Part of that is the ramping of tension throughout: did he, or didn’t he? I also found some great scene work: priest and writer getting stoned on magic mushrooms with the priest hallucinatorially turning into a goat-man in a section that reminds me of the Bolaño story I just read; it’s great imagery with amazing symbolism built in, and just the right touch of bizarre ambiguity.

In another great scene, the protagonist recollects the role of priests in his family:

At a certain time of the year the parish priest came to bless the house. You remember your grandmother kneeling down in the cramped living room, her head bowed, the priest intoning the words and sending sprinklets of holy water flying from a small, occult-looking bottle drawn from his inside pocket. You like to remember his black suit, his black hat with its short brim, his small black cigar balanced nimbly on the railing just beyond the open doorway. The priest reeking of cigar smoke and spewing holy water on the dated furniture. Your grandmother kneeling on the spinach-colored carpet, kerchiefed head bowed low. Years later this memory or set of memories was triggered by the climactic scene in The Exorcist: the two priests standing in the room with the possessed girl, throwing holy water and chanting, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Again, the subtext of that in the context of the story is spectacular.

I’m very fond of the telescoping of levels of story – the writer in the second-person story writing the second-person book that is the story, or part of it at least, and even extending into reality: the writer of the story shares a few autobiographical traits with the protagonist: he was a casino dealer and is now a university professor, and based the old priest on “an influential Jesuit he met in his schooling.” And come on, though I rather dismissed it just a couple of paragraphs ago, the Graham Greene reference and theological nature of “The Second Person” is very clever, yet it fits in completely naturally, without that tacked-on feeling of a writer out to prove how clever he is. Incidental cleverness, organic to the story. And finally, at the very end, all the cleverness breaks down into honesty. No wonder a 12,000-word online story in second person about a writer won a Pushcart.

I guess my bad-luck streak with priest stories is officially broken.

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