Milkweed Editions, $25, 407 pp.
The Rhetoric of Death
Berkley Books/Penguin Press, $15, 376 pp.
It’s refreshing to encounter two novels about the lives of priests and religious that feature not sex abuse or embezzlement, but rather the possibility of romance between consenting adults. John Reimringer’s debut novel is set among diocesan clergy in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the decades after Vatican II and tells the story of James Dressler, a young priest about to take a leave of absence from his parish. Judith Rock chooses a more exotic setting. Her protagonist, Charles du Luc, a Jesuit “scholastic” or seminarian, is assigned to teach rhetoric and dance at the College of Louis le Grand in seventeenth-century Paris.
Both Reimringer and Rock have done their homework. Vestments is a pitch-perfect account of priestly life at just the time when the old ways are fast disappearing. It is brave, if not foolhardy, to tackle this subject in this place, when J. F. Powers might be thought to have said the first and last word on Minnesota clerics, but Dressler pulls it off. Rock, who has a doctorate in art and theology, spent time in Paris studying the Jesuit school that forms the backdrop to her novel. The Rhetoric of Death is an honest-to-goodness whodunit, one that along the way educates its readers in classical Jesuit pedagogy and the trials and tribulations of the Huguenots. But what gives focus and pathos to both novels is the soul-searching of Dressler and du Luc. To what, they ask, is God calling them?
In Fr. Dressler’s case, traditional Catholics would probably respond that the question is moot, because God has already called him, he accepted the call, and he has apparently been doing a pretty good job of being a priest. By his own account he likes interacting with those he serves and is captivated by the wonderful gift of being able to celebrate the Eucharist. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow priests, but he is willing to call out his careerist best friend for morally equivocal behavior. That friend, of course, will go far in the priesthood, while James Dressler will never be more than a “good pastor.”
The more interesting side of Dressler’s life lies in the dysfunctions of his Irish-Catholic family, particularly his father, whose larger-than-life presence sometimes overwhelms our interest in the young priest. Following the dysfunctional dad from one barroom brawl to another, we get a rich picture of blue-collar St. Paul, though the motivation for Dad’s behavior is uncertainly sketched and the affection his son has for him is sometimes hard to fathom.
Vestments is told from Dressler’s perspective, and with a sure sense of the complexity of factors that might lead a boy of the time into the seminary. Hero-worship for a local priest, a breakup with high-school sweetheart Betty, and the desire to escape a claustrophobic family life for the orderly upward social mobility of the seminary come together to draw James into the clerical life. But when Betty reappears, the unresolved tensions of priesthood and celibacy finally have to be faced. The last few pages of the book, as Dressler makes his decisions, seem a little forced, but then, endings are so much harder than beginnings.
In a detective story like Rock’s, character is on the whole less important than plot. Nevertheless, du Luc is drawn in pretty fine detail, and minor characters who are more than two-dimensional abound among the Jesuits of the college and in the teeming streets of early modern Paris, so well imagined in this work. The story involves possible murder and potential kidnapping but avoids Dumas-like melodrama by being anchored in the intriguing details of college life. The prestigious school is preparing both a classical tragedy and a ballet for the delectation of King Louis and the visiting Siamese delegation. To complicate matters, Pernelle, a young woman to whom du Luc had at one time been secretly betrothed, reappears in the young Jesuit’s life. She is one of the persecuted Huguenots, and Rock uses her both to raise the tension and to focus du Luc’s uneasiness about his vocation to religious life. Rock balances perfectly the differing claims of detection, romance, suspense, and historical detail. As a mystery, as a kind of coming-of-age novel, or as a docudrama on early Jesuit pedagogy, The Rhetoric of Death works remarkably well.
Both these books persuade us of the reality of the worlds they depict. Vestments draws a picture of a believable urban Catholic St. Paul and achieves a sensitive ambiguity in which we find it difficult to assign praise or blame to anyone, even to Dressler’s father. Reim-ringer has substantial powers of description and an uncanny sense of the trivial secrecies of priestly life. In the end Vestments is about the struggle to discern where heroism ends and an overactive superego begins, and if the conclusion will not please every reader, the journey is well worth it. The Rhetoric of Death has fewer portentous insights and more enjoyable escapism, but the same deep concerns that bother Dressler are also alive in du Luc. They are not as central to Rock’s story as they are to Reimringer’s, but they may well reappear in more troubling fashion in the sequel that is hinted at, if not promised. It will be interesting to see how both authors move on from these very entertaining debuts.