Thursday, June 08, 2017

"Departures" (1980)

Story by John L'Heureux not available online.

John L'Heureux's story observes milestones in the life of a priest—at the ages of 25, 40, and 55. It dwells in a Catholic point of view and while it strays from that somewhat (it's a priest who is also a humanist) it never gets far from the church. It's square and regular in its construction, with symmetries and careful repetitions. At the same time it's a bit of an experimental work. We learn that the priest has taken his path not so much for religious reasons but more because the clerical life appeals to him, and the "chaos" of the world repulses him. Eventually he pursues a PhD in English. "That has stabilized him somehow, teaching English is more human than teaching theology." It's not God he is seeking in his isolation, it's humanity, which is ironic considering his choices to avoid the world. But that's also a dilemma I can appreciate. The three sections of the story are interwoven with certain points in common. He is always traveling on a train. He is always thinking about his life as a priest. His relationship with his mother always troubles him. The shadow of death is somehow never far. At 25, not yet ordained but already proudly wearing the collar, he is worried about the impression he makes on the world. He doesn't want to appear too affectionate in public, and his mother's feeling are hurt when he will only kiss her on the cheek when she meets him at the train station. The events of this scene actually occur twice: first as they happen, and then as the memories of a 40-year-old, with slightly different details, when he is visiting his dying mother. The strange repetition is one of the most striking points of this story, as if the priest is almost but not quite realizing that he is somehow stuck there, at the beginning of his life. Another common thread is a dream or vision he had as a young man, in which he is present at the Jesus crucifixion, and sees soldiers playing a game with dice. They offer him the dice, which he holds in his hand. At 55, he is returning home from "the wake of his last living relative." He thinks of where he is now in life. It is Easter weekend the priest is traveling, and on the Sunday he is in church performing rituals, "and for a second his mind veers to The Waste Land." I'm sure a lot of this goes right over my head in terms of the Catholic and/or literary themes, but I like the way it's put together.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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