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

10♦ 10♦ 10♦ 10♦ 10♦ 10♦ 10♦ 10♦

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.

asher lev

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.

potok

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)

2♠ 2♠ 2♠ 2♠ 2♠ 2♠ 2♠ 2♠

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”.

trevor

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.

 

Alexander Godin: My Dead Brother Comes to America (Deal Me In – Week 28)

8♣ 8♣ 8♣ 8♣ 8♣ 8♣ 8♣ 8♣

The New World breathed a chill upon us and this chill, we felt, was not due entirely to the season.

Current political climate aside, it’s difficult to think of the American story without thinking of the immigrant’s story and that probably accounts for the fact that there are so many short stories written from an immigrant’s point of view. Alexander Godin’s “My Dead Brother Comes to America” is a prime example.

Narrated by a thirteen year-old Ukrainian boy on a ship pulling in to New York harbor, he and his family catch a glimpse of his father already on shore – a father he hasn’t seen since he was five.

On Ellis Island, the reader gets the mixture of sympathy, pity and resentment from those “checking in” the first-time arrivals to the United States.

But for the most part, we get the fear and excitement from the narrator. He also has a grudge against his father. With more mixed emotions, the reader isn’t sure where the grudge is coming from. Is it simply the fact that the father has been away for eight years? Or is there more to the story?

Behind the scenes looms the story alluded to in the title. I admit that I had a number of thoughts on how the story plays out simply based on reading the title. None of my thoughts were exactly correct but I’ll let readers find out for themselves the premise surrounding the title.

short stories century

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Eight of Clubs for Week 28 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.

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow

Here on the river I have known peace and beauty such as I never knew in any other place. There is always work here that I need to be doing and I have many worries, for life on the edge seems always threatening to go over the edge. But I am always surprised, when I look back on times here that I know to have been laborious or worrisome or sad, to discover that they were never out of the presence of peace and beauty, for here I have been always in the world itself.

Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow is a lot of things. It’s the story of the decline of a way of life. It’s a weaving together of stories about small southern town antics told by its barber. It’s the weaving together of thoughts and ideas about philosophy, theology and economics also from the point of view of Port William, Kentucky’s barber. It’s the story of one man’s vocation, community and purpose. And it’s an odd but beautiful story of unrequited love.

For me personally, though, it’s a novel that in its own little way got me through a dark time in my life. During the week of Father’s Day in 2009, my wife and kids and I drove down to Myrtle Beach to hang out by the ocean for a few days. It was in the midst of what is now sometimes called The Great Recession and I had been unemployed for four months. I remember it being unusual because during most vacations I think of coming home and going to work again. With this trip, I kept wondering what was the point of going home.

But on the beach by the ocean I happened to read Jayber Crow for the first time and it was also my first time reading Wendell Berry. The title character, also the above mentioned barber, learns early on in his life that he doesn’t like dealing with what he calls “the man behind the desk” – which for him represents anything organizational, institutional, or corporate. He proceeds through his life to determine his own community, friendships and purpose outside of “the man behind the desk”. I can’t say that I’m completely free from this idea as Jayber but in 2009 it was nice to know there was someone -whether Jayber or Berry or both – who felt the same way I do on many days. And it was nice to know that someone – even fictionally – succeeds in separating himself from these things.

I also found a kindred spirit in Jayber as he talks about his relationship with the church in his small town. In addition to barbering, he also serves as the church’s janitor. He never really addresses his reason for going but always stresses how he feels like an outside man even when he was inside – but he kept going.  I loved the way he said that some of his best ideas came when he was NOT listening to the sermons that were being preached. I don’t know if this was one of those ideas but it jumped out at me on the beach and it hasn’t left me yet; hopefully it never will:

I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.

 

 

 

 

 

Harold Brodkey: Verona – A Young Woman Speaks (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 27)

Q♥ Q♥ Q♥ Q♥ Q♥ Q♥ Q♥ Q♥

I had never seen so many pigeons or such a private and haunted place as that piazza, me in my new coat at the far rim of the world, the far rim of who knew what story, the rim of foreign beauty and Daddy’s games, the edge, the white border of a season.

Here’s the second story in a row narrated by a young child or rather the remembrances of a young child. In Harold Brodkey’s “Verona: A Young Woman Speaks”, the young girl – seven or eight if she remembers correctly – experiences so much happiness during a trip to Europe with her parents that she seems like she is going to burst. It’s like happiness on steroids.

One can’t help but enjoy her wonder and excitement as she travels across Europe like it was a magical land seeing things she might never see again. Like Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot”, the reader also can’t help but realize something might not be completely right; however, unlike last week’s story, the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong. There are hints that maybe all the money that her father spends on the trip and on his daughter isn’t going to last. And maybe the relationship between her parents isn’t altogether as perfect as it seems.

Brodkey allows the reader to be rest assured that this little girl at least had one “season” of great wonder and joy. Who knows what happens afterwards? I personally felt a little sad and jaded as I enjoyed the excitement but kept thinking “this can’t last forever”. But Brodkey at least did this reader a favor in not revealing how the happiness may have come to an end.

short stories century

This story is included in my copy of The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Queen of Hearts for Week 27 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.