Book Review: The Old Priest: Stories by Anthony Wallace

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The Old Priest: Stories
by Anthony Wallace
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Hardback: $24.95



Reviewed by Mike Walker

The work of a critic—be it one of literature, visual art, dance, or music or anything creative—is vexing in the sense that you have to so often set aside to a degree personal opinion while fully retaining your command of everything that opinion has ever taught you. I was speaking with a friend who is a graduate student in historical keyboards (he plays the clavichord, mainly) and was awestruck by how many very well-regarded, canonical, classical composers he totally dislikes and avoids insofar as possible. Most are Russian romantics so thankfully for him, he will never have to play their works since they post-date his own instrument. I started thinking though, what composers do I most dislike? Or for that matter, what authors? Which playwrights? And what if my friend had to review a concert of Medtner’s piano works or I had to write about a poet whom I simply do not care for at all? What then? Can it be done, can we really set aside what we “like” and instead focus on what we know about the genre at hand, the technique and the craft?

Anthony Wallace’s book of short stories, The Old Priest, allowed me to test this question out first-hand. It is not the type of literature I enjoy: I have seen much of this before in contemporary American writers of fiction, especially those in the MFA-centric circles. You find stories like those collected here in each and every literary journal every single month—stories of regret, stories of love gone wrong and characters either haunted forever by it or not able to set it right somehow—these stories of sex, drink, and loss. Stories of people who have a lot less to complain about than they think, so complain they certainly do, and how. Stories that are, I suppose, supposed to reflect the real and now of America? Moreover, I’m not big on New Jersey, or casinos, or people in bars being sad or lost as my bar experience is more one of watching some football (soccer, that is) or a good NBA game and having some fun—yes, wonder of wonders, you can have fun when you hang out with and drink with people! You can even have fun going to church, I suppose. But people don’t do that in the type of short stories we encounter far too often: they just have to have problems and those problems, beyond being simply sources of conflict to further the plot, often are very problematic in and of themselves.

So this isn’t my type of fiction. It’s painted in muted colors, it doesn’t take you away but instead locks you into a world where you, yeah, feel somewhat sorry for the sad saps who dwell within it, but you’ve met their cousins before in other stories and it seems quite much a matter just of more of the same. As I state all this, though, I realize it’s my view, it’s my personal feelings and it extends into other areas—how I dislike Vegas because of how fake it is, how it tries to broker fun, scandal, and an all-inclusive experience to ho-hum middle-aged folks who after the party go back to being tax accountants in some small town or simple suburb. I’m someone who would rather be skateboarding or BASE jumping than in Vegas; I’d rather have the world writ large and real than seeing the world writ small and covered with glitter. (I don’t like Disney much, either, in case you wondered.) So, when I encounter a book like The Old Priest, it’s not a book I would put first in the pile of those I really want to read. It just isn’t me. But is it good, even if it’s not what appeals to me? I don’t like a lot of hip-hop, either, but I can tell you what’s “good” regardless and probably be pretty much on the same trajectory as someone who loves hip-hop and knows it well. I’ll try to do that for Wallace’s book.

The title story, which opens this short collection, actually really shines. There is, of course, an “old priest” but the twists and turns taken from there on out are exceptional. There’s no shortage of magical realism—which isn’t an easy ploy to place in a short story, but really one where you have to know exactly what you’re up to for it to work, yet here it works fluently. The problem is, the opening story is probably the best of the lot, and yet it has exactly what it needs to keep you interested whereas much of what follows are long on grit, spite, and sorrow but lack the compelling magic (in every sense) of the opening tale. Wallace is skilled, to be sure—very skilled: great sense of dialog, the ability to craft characters who seem as seriously flawed as he wants us to see them (no easy trick, that) and the ability to put together some plots that are highly innovative. The problem for me too often though in these stories is that the characters have arrived at their lot in life mainly through their own very unwise (and oft-repeated) actions. You cannot feel sorry very long for adults who repeat their mistakes as if trying to make a cross-stitch of them. When you look at the greatest writers the world over who provided us with characters deeply flawed and long-suffering, and I mean writers like Mario Vargas Llosa or Roger Martin du Gard, you find that the characters themselves—no matter their problems—are enriched in some manner, filled in some manner with color, with emotion that draws you into their world and even probably their plights. When you have the type of characters that often Wallace offers—such as a couple on vacation in New Mexico despite their bitter, seemingly set-to-end, relationship—they read like second-rate versions of Bret Easton Ellis characters, right down to the cocaine and legacy of over-the-top 80s parties. They’re not easy to care about, and it serves them right to be listening to a hotel flamenco guitarist in an expectedly touristy variant of a New Mexico experience. There just seems to be a lot of missed opportunities here to better develop the characters and really explore their settings, but that probably was not what the author wanted to express: it appears his main intent is to show how inner turmoil predicated on past experiences haunts people—or can haunt people, if they only let it. He meets that task well enough, but it’s just not something as a reader that has much gravity for me: despite the magical realism, despite the efforts to illustrate characters overcoming obstacles, it all seems so basic and expected most of the time.

But then, I must confess again I’m not a fan of Jersey—at least not this stereotype of Jersey, and no matter the detail, the skill Wallace has to mention the sound of the oil furnace cutting on and so forth, I still feel like he’s dealing cards from a pack of stereotypes too often. I have a friend from Jersey and his tales of urban blight, corruption, and portly wannabe Sinatras in Atlantic City bore me, too. Wallace may concern himself with subjects I don’t care for, and that’s fine—I’m sure there is an ample readership for his fiction, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed at all in the quality of what he offers. I noted that the story “The Old Priest” itself was one of the best, certainly probably my personal favorite. Perhaps reading it first was also an issue for me as it set me up for certain expectations in the rest of the stories in the book. Alas, most of those other stories just didn’t measure up in terms of plot nor the really fascinating narrative elements the author provides in “The Old Priest” (which, in the interest of not giving too much away, I will not elaborate upon, except to say that so many good and bad stereotypes and concepts of Catholicism and priesthood come to a very surprising . . . if not “end”, at least “transformation” here). Wallace has his hand on the pulse of the aspects of New Jersey life (and by extension, aspects of American life that seem connected to the Garden State somehow) and he is able to make these connections shine in places, but there is a recurrent issue of him either seeming to try a bit too hard (the example above of rehashing the torrid times of someone’s former lover comes to mind—why? It’s not germane to the story at hand, seems trashy, tabloid, and just distracts) or else he doesn’t turn the story into what it could be—often a fault of a lack of length rather than his writing.

In his story “The Unexamined Life”, much like “The Old Priest” before it, Wallace finally comes close to winning me over. I’ve already at this point in the book resigned myself to the fact the story will concern either sex, drugs, or errr, blackjack, and not with beautiful people, not with a hint of gloss and diamond sheen, but with a dinge of dross. You know when James Joyce described that green-black color, that faded color, that combination of Irish coal dust and simple grit in “The Sisters” in Dubliners? Yeah, that color seems to seep through the lines in much of Wallace’s prose, but it’s there by clear design. Wallace has his topics he wants to address, he has settings and characters that inspire him even if as one reader in a vast spectrum of readers, they often fail to interest me all that much. So, in “The Unexamined Life” we do have a porn shop, we do have . . . how can I say this? We have lives that are based around the basics that on some level form the everyday foundations of most of our lives. We have the desires that motivate the human race and these are well-rendered; in this story, and I mean this as the highest of praise, Wallace reminds me of one of my all-time favorite short-story authors, the great Maeve Brennan. The shadow of Joyce is also here and the influences of many other authors turn up in places. Once again, Wallace is a craftsman of the very highest order, but throughout most of this collection can’t seem to draw me—or I cannot seem to allow myself to walk through the door. Again, the first story of the collection set my expectations high and in a certain direction so perhaps I’m looking West when I should be East or something, but I expected more of the Angela Carter type of magic that we have at the onset to be carried forward, and I didn’t locate that in most of the other stories.

I would recommend this book to someone who scans this review and finds mention of subjects, of types of characters, that reader finds of interest. I do not mean to be unkind—not because I fear such for I don’t and as a reviewer know I will encounter books where I will feel fully justified in being very critical—but because I do believe in and admire Wallace’s work. I find it frustrating that at points his characters are not likeable, for as human as they are, as flawed, I don’t pity them or cheer them on as I would, say, a Dawn Powell or Carson McCuller’s character. The is my greatest criticism here, but there is no doubt the man can write and that also he is keenly able to construct worlds—cut from the fresh, damp, unkind cloth of reality—that seem very life-like, very able in his descriptions to come to life. It’s just not a place I wish to explore further in most of the stories. For some readers, I have no doubt it will be though and that this may be one of their favorite books of the year.
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