Wendell Berry: A Half-Pint of Old Darling (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 33)

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Distant Land

The radiance within her had begun to gleam also in a sort of nimbus around her. If the devil made sin attractive, then she would have to admit that he had done a splendid job with Old Darling.

It’s 1920 in small town Kentucky and Tol Proudfoot and his wife Miss Minnie contemplate the topical politics of their time which consist mainly of prohibition and women getting “the vote”.

Miss Minnie, whom Tol considers smarter than himself, is against drinking alcohol and in favor of women getting “the vote”. In a series of comical twists, Tol hides a pint of whiskey that Miss Minnie finds. Miss Minnie ends up sacrificing her scruples and knowingly drinking it so as not to further her husband down the road of sin. Yes, she’s considered the smarter one but that’s part of the story’s fun. And of course the effect of the Old Darling on Miss Minnie is hilarious, too.

This story is included in my copy of Wendell Berry’s collection That Distant Land. I read it when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 33 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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J. F. Powers: Lions, Harts, Leaping Does (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 32)

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He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, fiery-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century:”Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”

A few weeks ago I read Paul Horgan’s story “The Devil in the Desert” about a dying priest and a rattlesnake. This week I read J. F. Powers short story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” about a dying priest and a canary. As far as stories go, the canary wins hands down!

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Powers puts the precise amount of cynicism into Father Didymus to keep the story from being soft and sentimental but yet still tug at our heart strings.  The rambling thoughts of  the dying Didymus along with his short conversations with Father Titus, a priest with more going for him than meets the eye, parallel the flitting canary in a cage provided by Titus. Powers makes the canary into one of my favorite non-human, non-speaking characters:

So far as he was able to detect the moods of the canary he participated in them. In the morning the canary, bright and clownish, flitted back and forth between the two perches in the cage, hanging from the sides and cocking its little tufted head at Didymus querulously.

The canary gives both a humor and a sadness to the wrestlings of Didymus over his past failures and his attempts to reconcile himself to his life as he heads toward the end of it. I think this story has broken into my top ten favorites for the year.

In Powers’ classic story “Death of a Favorite”, he also uses an animal, this time a cat, to tell the story of two priests with less than noble intentions.  He has a way with animals.

“Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read it when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Gift of Asher Lev

Master of the Universe, how You run Your world. To me You give this gift so I cannot live without the scents in which the gift finds life; to Rocheleh You give a curse so she cannot go anywhere near those scents. If there is wisdom here, it escapes me. Unless You wish to show irrevocably that the gift is mine alone; that there is no future for it in my family; that it begins and ends with Asher Lev. Is that it? Asher Lev, artist. Asher Lev, troubler. Asher Lev, dead end.

In Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev, Asher has a few conversations with the Master of the Universe. I say conversations but Asher is the only one doing the talking or at least the thinking to himself. In this sequel to the novel  My Name is Asher LevAsher is now 45, married with two children, and living in France still in exile from his Ladover Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Gift

He still lives in conflict with his faith and his art while continuing to uphold both. As twenty years have passed, it’s now obvious that this tension won’t go away and this knowledge gives Asher a kind of melancholy strength as he deals with situations that bring his family back to Brooklyn.

After reading both novels back to back (second time for both), the endings for both stand out for their lack of resolution. The reader gets the idea that Asher will be living with this unresolved tension for the rest of his life.

The plot of this novel slowly and thoughtfully proceeds to a major decision for Asher and his family; however, much of the novel consists of the thoughts that go through Asher’s mind as he edges closer and closer to what could be considered inevitable. Some of those thoughts come out as prayers to the Master of the Universe. Most of these prayers are anything but pious. As the brutal honesty in Asher’s art causes much of his conflict, that same honesty finds its way into Asher’s inward heart and prayers.

 

Benjamin Rosenblatt: Zelig (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 31)

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“The old one is a barrel with a stave missing,” knowingly declared his neighbors. “He never spends a cent; and he belongs nowheres.” For “to belong,” on New York’s East Side, is of no slight importance.

With Benjamin Rosenblatt’s “Zelig” comes another immigrant’s story. Zelig is an old man in Russia when his son sends word from New York that he is sick. Zelig saves money so that he and his wife can move to New York to be with their son and grandson. New York isn’t exactly Zelig’s ideal place to live – it’s not home. So he begins saving money to go back to Russia.

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The story is short and to the point and told in a manner that could be considered a fable. It at least seems like a fable, now. Perhaps it wasn’t when published in 1915. It’s not a happy fable in that Zelig’s way of life is completely shattered. His attempts to save money are usurped by this new world and its customs. The story also contains a “lack of belonging” theme that many immigrant stories have. To top it all off, Zelig is old – something not very acceptable to this new world.

“Zelig” is the first story chronologically speaking in The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ten of Clubs for Week 31 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Paul Horgan: The Devil in the Desert (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 30)

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The snake hesitated before answering. A gleam of admiration went through its expression, and it marveled frankly for a moment at the astuteness of Father Louis.

“I must say, even if we are enemies, you force me to admire and like you,” it said.

“Thank you,” said Father Louis. “Viewed abstractly, you have great and beautiful qualities of your own.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Oh, yes, I do. But I must add that they seem to me less important, in the end, than they do to you.”

“You can also be very rude, you know.”

A surreal, venom-induced dream including a delightful conversation between Father Louis and a rattle snake takes center stage in Paul Horgan’s “The Devil in the Desert”. Given the title, one doesn’t have to wonder who the rattle snake is – at least in the context of the dream.

Paul Horgan

Set in 1850’s Texas, Horgan describes the landscape beautifully and makes Father Louis a memorable character. Father Louis’s bi-annual trip to those members of his congregation who live too far out in the wilderness to come to him has given his life purpose for three decades. Many around him understand that he is getting too old to travel the rugged terrain. Father Louis understands this, too. He just doesn’t want to hear it from anyone else. Of course, when the message comes in the form of a rattle snake, he kind of has to listen.

Just like the desert, the story has its beautiful moments and frightening moments. Into which category does the priest’s dream fall? I’ll let readers make up their own mind.

I read this story when I selected the Ten of Diamonds for Week 30 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

My Name is Asher Lev

I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all – in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflicter of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.

Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things.

But I will not apologize. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.

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Asher Lev’s father works to set up Hasidic yeshivas (Jewish schools) throughout post-War Europe while his son Asher stays in Brooklyn continuing to pursue his artistic gifts. Both of these passions collide to become the core conflict in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. In this novel, Potok does for faith and art what he does for faith and learning in The Chosen and The Promise.

Asher’s father never truly comes to terms with Asher’s gift and passion. As a child, Asher, himself, doesn’t fully understand it. In spite of his parent’s love for him, they don’t know what to make of his drawing and painting. It is interesting, though, that once a week on the Sabbath, all differences are set aside.

Potok portrays Asher and his parents with so much grace and subtlety that the reader understands both sides of this conflict even if Potok’s sympathies are with Asher. It’s also amazing how realistically Potok gives Asher’s Rebbe, the leader of his Hasidic community, the wisdom to know that while Asher will stand out as different, his talent and desire won’t be squashed. The Rebbe does his best to keep Asher within his Hasidic faith even if Asher’s talent moves him into what could be considered dangerous territory. And by the end of the novel, the Rebbe has appeared to succeed. While some traditions may go by the wayside and Asher leaves his community, he continues to practice both his faith and his art.

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As Asher’s faith world isn’t sure where his art belongs, his art world isn’t sure where his faith belongs. When Asher attempts to hide his Hasidic side curls behind his ears, his mentor tells him to either keep them where they are or cut them off, but don’t try to hide them. As a teenager, Asher talks to his agent about how his art might influence the world, she tells him:

Art is not for people who want to make the world holy…Do you understand me, Asher Lev? If you want to make the world holy, stay in Brooklyn.

Asher ultimately determines his rationale for painting as he compares his work to his father’s:

I wanted to paint the same way my father wanted to travel and work for the Rebbe. My father worked for Torah. I worked for – what? How could I explain it? For beauty? No. Many of the pictures I painted were not beautiful. For what, then? For a truth I did not know how to put into words. For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.

For me personally, I could read this novel over and over again without getting tired of it. Being able to look back over the decades since I first read it, I see how it helps me reconcile my own faith with my love for art and literature.

 

 

 

William Trevor: Lost Ground (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 29)

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He had been affronted by the visit, but he didn’t let it show. Why should a saint of his Church appear to a Protestant boy in a neighbourhood that was overwhelmingly Catholic, when there were so many Catholics to choose from?

It’s Week 29 of Deal Me In 2018 and I selected the Two of Spades – another wild card and that means another William Trevor story. This time I picked “Lost Ground” and as to be expected with Trevor, it’s wonderful.

Of all the conflicts in the world, the one that baffles me is the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. It seems to me they have more in common than they do differences; however, that could be said about almost any human conflict. But this conflict is the backdrop for “Lost Ground”.

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Milton Leeson, a Protestant teenager in 1989, receives a holy kiss from St. Rosa in an apple orchard and feels called to preach about it to his surrounding neighborhood. Both Leeson’s militantly Protestant family and the neighborhood’s priest become uneasy about his calling. While the purpose or topic of Milton’s preaching is never specifically named, Trevor seems to point toward reconciliation as the message Milton receives from St. Rosa. A reconciliation that never occurs in the story.

Most of Trevor’s stories have a tinge of sadness or melancholy to them. While hope is not completely dismissed, it usually doesn’t stand right out in the open. It might show up in the supernatural dream of a teenage boy but not quite in the real world in which he lives.

“Lost Ground” is included in William Trevor: Selected Stories. My Deal Me In 2018 list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.