One of the pleasures of literary fiction is its fluidity, how it engages both the physical world and mental states, moving back and forth in a manner that not only reproduces the experience of being alive, but adds to it. The book in hand is less a mirror than an additional, highly sensitive appendage of the self.
John Reimringer’s Vestments (Milkweed, 407 pages) highlights the process by staking out two sharply contrasting worlds: the earthy, often violent family of James Dressler, a young man growing up in blue-collar Saint Paul, and James’ calling as a Roman Catholic priest, his love of the Church’s mysteries and sacraments. Dressler’s attempts to reconcile these two worlds provide the narrative thrust of this excellent first novel.
The city of Saint Paul is affectionately depicted for both its history and its ongoing vitality. This is not the Rust Belt North on a downward spiral, but a frontier town in the process of reinventing itself, a place of old money and working poor, yuppies, students, and Native Americans. There are still-troubled relations between blacks and whites, Mexican and Hmong immigrants. This is Minnesota of the end of the 20th century, when the Twin Cities, like Seattle and Portland, assumed their place as major American cultural centers. Vestments is both a witness and a product of that fact.
In a recent New York Times article about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which, incidentally, is also about St. Paul and which was released at almost exactly the same time as Vestments), David Brooks complains of a tendency among American writers to devote themselves to a constricting orthodoxy of depicting “Quiet Desperation.” According to Brooks, “There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service…or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.”
Brooks has his own agenda, of course, and it’s not literary, but this observation cannot be dismissed, either. In terms of theme, at least, there is some truth to his claim in regard to much of contemporary American fiction. Thoreau first referred to “lives of quiet desperation” as a contrast to his bracing and cranky individualism; he certainly didn’t make it the focus of his work. But now, indeed, it has become the focus of many writers, including some of the best.
Vestments, however, takes a different tack. It does not shy away from many of the elements on Brooks’ list. Religion is central, ethnic heritage is a source of identity, and so is work. Military service has also deeply marked the Dressler family. Reimringer gives all of these subjects ample treatment.
And, most importantly, he is convincing. To take the most prominent example, religion: as a non-Catholic skeptic, I do not possess reflexive sympathies for the mysteries that fascinate and comfort the narrator James Dressler, but I found his version of them engaging. Although Reimringer should not be labelled in any dogmatic sense, it is interesting to compare him to other writers with similar preoccupations. To his credit, there is not the constricting sense that the game is fixed, such as one can experience when reading Graham Greene. Nor are there grotesques, as in Flannery O’Connor, who will always be an idiosyncratic, and wonderful, case-unto-herself. Rather, his representation of religion is closely tied to his writing style. Although F. Scott Fitzgerald casts a long shadow over St. Paul, and is explicitly mentioned in the novel, Reimringer’s writing is generally sober and, while showing a sharp eye for image (feet are “pale as fish” and rosary beads give off “an undersea luminescence”), he is wary of the seductions of lyricism. This is not plot-driven fiction, either, moving fast in fear of its own shadows. Broadly speaking, it is as if a Hemingwayesque sensibility has been applied to a un-Hemingwayesque subject, the result being something that is Reimringer’s own. “At Saint Thomas,” the narrator Dressler, or “Father Jim,” observes, “joining the priesthood was honorable in the same way that joining the Marines had been in my father’s place and time.”
Dressler’s father Joe is perhaps the most arresting character in the novel. He is troubled, violent and exasperating, and still looms large in the narrator’s life. The description below captures both the man and the flavor of much of the book:
“Depending on the evening and what he had to do in a place, Dad would leave Jacky and me in the backseat of the car, playing with the little plastic cocktail swords he brought out of bars for us, or he would bring us in and set us up with Cokes, leave us perched on bar stools. I remember him leaned over a pool table in smoky light like a movie, or on his back under a bar sink, his toolbox beside him and a pipe wrench in hand. I remember arguments, and a few terrifying fights. I saw him hit men with an open hand, his fist, a pool cue. I saw him threaten a man with a hammer. Before I was ten, I’d been, it seemed, in every bar in Saint Paul: on University Johnny’s, where they’d cash your payroll check at a barred window, John’s Tap, Christensen’s Saloon, the Trend, the Gossip; in Midway and Frogtown Charlie’s Aldine and the Victorian and Hirschmann’s; on the East Side the Bee Hive, the Mounds Park Lounge, the Florida; and downtown the Gopher, where waitresses asked what the fuck you want? and served coney dogs; and Alary’s, the cop bar, its ceiling hung with damaged cop-car doors sent by departments across the country. Bars in West Seventh, bars in the North End. Bars on Rice Street. Bars on Arcade. More bars than I can remember. The cops knew my father. So did the criminals. In a bigger city he might have been mobbed up, but in Saint Paul he was just a guy getting by, as he put it. ‘How you doin’, Joe?’ ‘Gettin’ by.’”
For Father Jim, the priesthood is a refuge from this world, but it brings its own complications, notably the vexed question of celibacy. Recent church scandals are mentioned in passing but Vestments does not sensationalize them; rather, the emphasis is more personal, and local, as Father Jim, in his own fashion, struggles at “gettin’ by.” Much of the story hinges on a rekindled romance from pre-priesthood days, but other strands of family strife and social rivalry remain in the fore, too. There are no neat or easy solutions in this story, and Reimringer shows impressive imaginative sympathy for his characters. His is decidedly a fallen world, but it is not only a fallen world; his narrator cannot leave it, even as he wants to restore it.
–Charles Holdefer, author of The Contractor (2007), Nice (2001), and Apology for Big Rod (1997).