“The Father’s Blessing” is the longest story in The Complexities of Intimacy so far, and it’s a major comedic turn, albeit a dark one. Whereas the first two stories are told from the point of view of a daughter and a mother, respectively, the third (told from the perspective of a priest, an unreliable narrator who wreaks all kinds of psychological mayhem) might be considered a kind of fracturing of the nuclear family, one of the collection’s primary themes, if not a theme, generally, in Caponegro’s work. Caponegro was wise to change it from its original title: “The Priest’s Tale.” This might be a stretch, but his name, Faraday, suggests “faraway” to my eyes and ears, and it also suggests that he’s “far from a day,” that is, the current time in which the story is set, his sometimes rather stiff language and antiquated ideas underscoring his temporal displacement. Being “far from a day” also suggests that he may be closer to night, that is, darker things, making him more menacing than he might at first appear. Speaking of displacement, I was surprised upon reading about the Polaroid photograph (51), since I had been thinking that the story was set in much earlier times, particularly because of the priest’s description of how “The road to the rectory is seldom plowed in winter, and in spring the potholes impede smooth travel. When it rains, the roads turn almost instantly to clay, so that only in a skilled driver’s hands and at high speeds can they be traversed successfully” (44). These things, of course, can be true, even now, but this description, in tandem with the priest’s old-fashioned rhetoric transported me back in time.
Mrs. Callahan at one point, speaking to the priest about her daughter and her son-in-law, says, “They are not beholden to tradition, as our generation” (56). The priest views himself as
a man who must attend, through the vehicle of a single sense, to a sequence of stories, of lives, of sins whose range spans from the barely worth mentioning to the most debased; a man who must juxtapose the only confession in the life of an evil person with the routine inflated guilts of an exemplary practitioner; such a man has evolved the skill of flexibility; of quick recovery; to use the colloquial metaphor of our automobile-dependent culture, the ability to switch gears… (56)
The priest has this bizarre sense of self, an idealized sense of self, where he thinks he’s achieved some kind of exalted form of objectivity, but he’s really just another desensitized person, one who can also be quite dangerous. This erroneous view of himself results in all kinds of clueless behavior, like the discussion about last rites, the casket measurements, the showing of the photograph, etc. Mrs. Callahan also says this about the priest: “He’s not a man exactly, is he—a priest?” (61); while the daughter, who has a much clearer view of the priest says, “he is a man after all, no matter what any of you say” (61). But her mother will not be contradicted: “Well of course, dear, technically, that’s true. But a priest is a special kind of man, and if you can’t trust a priest, whom can you trust?” (61)
Mr. Callahan is conspicuously absent from the story, of whom Mrs. Callahan only says, “My husband, you see, he’s been…unwell” (58). Though she’d like to think of the priest as something outside of humanity, she contradicts herself, perhaps due to some kind of arousal of something long dormant in her, by saying of him the following: “It is nice to have a man about, to lend a hand” (58); “And insofar as he’s a man, what’s wrong with having a man about the house” (61)?
One of the first intimations that things may get weirder is when the groom is being measured for a casket, and the priest observes: “Meanwhile the groom hid himself the more deeply inside his bride, as if this would render the whole of him invisible” (46). Another signal that strange things are going to happen is when the priest says, “And yet, our world fluctuates before us daily; appearances ever-unreliable indices of truth” (58). These elements are mere hints, though, that lead the reader to the weirdest part of the story, which also happens to be my favorite part of “The Father’s Blessing”:
I watched the bride splay her legs; she spread them as far, it seemed, as legs could operate, as legs could separate, and farther still—perhaps she had as an adolescent performed the acrobatic maneuver called a split; she might have been a cheerleader—it seemed it must be terribly uncomfortable but this time she uttered no cries, not a sound, as they, adopting what appeared an exaggerated yoga position, crept inside, one after the other, to be embraced by those contours which are even in my imagination, forbidden to the man who inhabits, as vocation, a chamber of secrets. I heard them twice removed now, as if underwater (62-63).
The priest explains away his eavesdropping and voyeuristic gaze saying, “The two women had no suspicion that they were in some fashion exposed to the practiced ear of the man whose profession it is to listen through a membrane to all the world’s secrets” (63). Earlier, he had surrendered to the demands of the flesh by feasting, with some relish, on his dinner. He does later confess: “Mortal that I was, I would have to admit my subservience to the body” (69).
And just when you thought things were getting strange, the story gets even stranger. Who would have guessed that both the mother and the priest would be milking Kathleen’s engorged breasts: “the bride’s mammae” (67), as the priest describes them? The priest’s description of sucking on the breast is beautifully rendered, if still creepily enacted:
“I am here.” I whispered it so softly that it might have been an angel’s voice, or strand of dream. And the bride’s gasp was likewise a subterranean response to dreamt image or sensation, when I took into my mouth the darkened mounded center of the aureole, controlling my distress to find it already wet, leaking in fact, all the while that Mrs. Callahan attended its twin. The breast itself was hard, like a boulder, but with a quality of translucence, blue veins protruding through the flesh (67-68).
The sensuous lyricism of the passage suggests that, as much as he resists self-arousal, things are, nevertheless, becoming sensual for the priest. He admits to being changed by what he first calls “covert interaction,” which he then calls “carnal interaction” (70).
Speaking of lyricism, Caponegro’s careful attention to language is, once again, evident throughout the story, evident from the outset, that is, in the first paragraph, where you find a torrent of s’s: a “the preponderance of sibilants” that “achieves an effect of transparency,” to borrow from D. N. G. Carter’s analysis of “Sick Love” (Robert Graves: The Lasting Poetic Achievement, 96), e.g., “security, solace, and spiritual,” to mention a few, which, considering the dubious character of the narrator makes for a high degree of irony. While we’re directly signaled to the narrator’s unreliability, since anyone who repeatedly remarks on their own sincerity (46) and marvels at their own eloquence (45) should be immediately suspect, not to mention his odd and often seemingly unconsciously inconsiderate behavior, it is the priest’s syntactical choices that also mark him out as an untrustworthy person. It isn’t only literary wordsmiths who are aware of the seductive and persuasive power of the acoustic properties of language. For instance, newspaper headlines will frequently use alliteration and puns, and advertisers will use all kinds of devices to embed the idea of a product in our minds, so it isn’t surprising to find a priest, who, despite what he says about not proselytizing (45), uses the full resources of language to inculcate his various messages. The reader has to doubt almost everything the priest says, despite the “effect of transparency” the priest’s well-crafted language seems to evince. This subtext, that aesthetically-conscious language can be used for ill purposes, adds another dimension to the story.
Though I find myself questioning the narrator at every turn, I can’t help but revel in his wordplay: alliteration: “parents puzzled protests” (45), “flesh of his flesh falling” (47), “priest possess potentially” (48); repetitions: “beginning…beginning” (45); assonance: “sight of the bright white” (52); and the punning off of the word “bride” in the following sentence: “Who can possibly surmise the unbridled musings of the young in unfamiliar circumstances in a world relentlessly novel” (46)?
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.