On one hand, we have a female character who’s dad is, somehow, a Catholic priest. On the other hand, we have Patricia Lockwood’s “Priestdaddy,” billed as a memoir about growing up as the daughter of a Catholic priest.
If you know me at all or if you’ve read “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival,” it’s pretty damn clear why I’d be drawn to Lockwood’s book. In my precious little baby of a first published novel, Father Steve meets and befriends Vicky, the daughter of the priest he’s come to Grand Prairie to replace.
On the surface, that’s where the similarities end. Vicky’s fictional father and mother were never married. We don’t see any of her dad in the book, in fact. Vicky is more of a no-nonsense sort, a nurse rather than a wandering poet. She’s also firmly Gen-X rather than Millennial. Oh, and obviously, she’s a character in a work of fiction.
Lockwood, on the other hand, is extremely real and — even when writing about the uglier parts of life — funny as hell. Those who follow me on social media may have noticed me using the Nook’s Quote of the Day feature last month–often more than once a day. Sorry for abusing the system, Quote of the Day gods. One of my favorites:
Dads didn’t care about lightning, because lightning was on the cover of all their favorite albums. Sometimes it was painted on their trucks as well. You could that if their kids were killed by lightning, they would be sad, but they would also feel superior about it for the rest of their lives, because it was without question the most hard-ass way for a child to die. — Patricia Lockwood, “Priestdaddy”
The gumbo is not authentic, exactly — if my mom ever saw a bayou, she would shout “DROWNING HAZARD!” and “WATERY GRAVE!” as loud as she could till men came to drain it, and that would be the end of Louisiana–but it’s at least respectful. There are no tomatoes in it. — Patricia Lockwood, “Priestdaddy.”
Though the book seemed to be marketed as firmly focused on her father, it isn’t. And that’s not a ding.One of the points of the book is that even when a writer sets out to write about someone, they don’t always cooperate.
The book is the story of Patricia Lockwood, of her growing up with someone like her father, with someone like her mother and doing so within the inner circle of the Catholic Church. And while I steered “First Annual” mostly clear of the scandals the Church is best known for, they’re here in Lockwood’s memoir. They almost never take center stage, but that makes it so much worse. There’s something slinking around the edges, something that happened — you know what the monster is, you know it’s going to show up somehow at some point, and it’s very, very unsettling. But you’ll have to read the book for that revelation.
What really kept punching me in the gut about this book had little to do with religion and a lot to do with family and home and musty old houses. Lockwood’s family moved around a bit and the homes the church provided her father weren’t exactly palatial. Reading about them, I kept thinking of houses my great aunts lived in–creaky and dimly lit with a mix of odd smells, all of which were somehow both creepy and comforting. I also kept thinking of the church hall at Queen of Angels in Opelousas, Louisiana, where I spent a great deal of time in high school since I was on the Retreat Team (to be clear, that’s the equivalent of a youth-ministry team, not a group of people who ran away from everything). And because her father is a heavy-set large man who runs around quoting Rush Limbaugh, I was also put in mind of a certain seminarian back in O-Town at the time.
But mostly, for some reason, I kept thinking of Mawmaw’s house. I haven’t quite figured out why. Perhaps because Lockwood’s childhood was unstable and these places were a shelter in a storm. My childhood wasn’t nearly as exotic as all that–the fairly average divorce business which I guess is scary for any kid. But Mawmaw’s house, which–as houses go–was extremely creepy, was an island of calm, a weird secret garden sort of place. Now it happened to be a secret garden where you had to worry about tetanus, fire ants, burning grass, killer attack geese and Mawmaw coming after you with a switch if you broke the rules. But we still felt protected. And we knew what the rules were.
I’m digressing from the point of this post, though. That’s also part of the power of this book. I read a lot of fiction and I read it for escape. Novels tend to pull me in until I come up for air. “Priestdaddy” kept sending me on flights of fancy. My one knock against it initially is that Lockwood at times gets a little too writerly. She’s a poet, after all. But her own flights of language not only gave me something pretty to read that wasn’t directly in service to a plot, they kind of gave me a push into my own headspace where I’d dig up my own memories and just sit there thinking and then — something I haven’t done in forever — scribbling thoughts down in a notebook.
Even now, a month later, some of the passages are rattling around in my brain. Considering the events going on in the world, I’ll leave you with this one.
All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. Its protects its own shape. — Patricia Lockwood, “Priestdaddy.”