Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pulitzer Project: The Edge of Sadness

Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness is a book that I would probably never have picked up if I wasn't doing the Pulitzer Project. It's the 1962 fiction winner. The book covers less than a year in a middle-aged Catholic priest's life and consists of his thoughts and reminiscences about his life and what's going on around him. If I had been told in advance that the book described a man's descent into alcoholism, his physical recovery, and his spiritual re-awakening I'd probably have been trying to find excuses for skipping over it. As it was, I ordered The Edge of Sadness through interlibrary loan so didn't even have a chance to flip through it at the library before checking it out. With some books, I'm curious enough to do some advance research, but not this time. I went into it cold, a totally naive reader. No preconceptions, no idea what I was about to get into. All I knew was that it was the next book on the list.

I loved the book. It was amazing. I got sucked right into it. Whoever Edwin O'Connor was, he could write.This was one of those rare happy occasions where I went in with low expectations -- some of the Pulitzer winners have been, to put it mildly, total dreck -- and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the basic narrative thread of the book doesn't sound particularly attractive (drunk priest flames out, goes through rehab, ends up assigned to a dead end inner city parish, experiences epiphany, and realizes he's actually in a good place), but O'Connor does the impossible: takes what could be a totally grim story and infuses it with enough humor to give it multiple laugh out loud minutes. Whether it's Father Hugh's own observations or the acerbic comments of other characters, O'Connor manages to drop enough witticisms into the book to take the edge off what could otherwise be a rather depressing story.

At one point, for example, an elderly character is on what might be his deathbed. He's had a massive coronary, he's requested that a priest be called in to perform Extreme Unction (aka "last rites"), and the man's adult children are sure the end is near. One of the man's cronies isn't convinced, despite the presence of the priest. After all, the octogenarian points out, Charlie's sister Julia isn't present. Why does that matter? Because Julia is better than a buzzard at sniffing out when someone is dying. He compares her to a vulture than can spot someone about to expire from, as he puts it, "a thousand miles away." No Julia, no imminent death. Sure enough, Charlie survives.

Eighty-one year old Charlie Carmody is actually at the heart of the book. He's introduced in the first chapter, when Father Hugh is surprised to receive a late evening phone call from the old man, and he's present in the last. Father Hugh has known Charlie since childhood; Charlie and his father were boys together. Through his father's stories and his personal observations of the old man, Father Hugh knows that Charlie is the master of the suck and stab as well as being a skilled manipulator and remarkably adept at always coming out on top. With Charlie there are no casual conversations, no idle social chitchat, so when Charlie calls, Father Hugh's first thought is to wonder just exactly what the old man wants. Charlie doesn't live in Father Hugh's parish, and although Father Hugh was a friend of the family, he hadn't spoken with any of the Carmodys for over five years. He also knows that Charlie enjoys playing a long game, taking his time getting to wherever it is he's going, so when Charlie tells him the reason he's calling is to invite Father Hugh to his 82nd birthday party, Hugh recognizes that the party invitation isn't the end of the game -- it's the beginning.

Over the next few months, Father Hugh becomes re-acquainted with the Carmodys -- Charlie, the patriarch of the family, his sister Julia, the three Carmody children (John, Dan, and Mary), the grandson, Ted, and two of Charlie's elderly cronies, P. J. and Bucky. P. J. and Bucky are the Statler and Waldorf of this tale. They provide a sardonic running commentary while throwing out occasional digs at Charlie or the world in general. We're also introduced to a few characters at Father Hugh's church, St. Paul's. There's the amiable but generally useless custodian, Roy, who shows up to work when and if he feels like it, the housekeeper and cook, who doesn't have a speaking role but makes sure Father Hugh isn't forced to do his own cooking, and a young curate whose enthusiasm and innocence can be exhausting. At times On the Edge of Sadness came so close to resembling either "Father Ted" or "Rev" that I found myself wondering if the developers of those shows had ever read this book. Probably not. The fact that St. Paul's bears a strong resemblance to St. Saviour's in the Marshes was pure coincidence; every city has a church similar to it -- the parish that time has passed by, the dwindling congregation, the changing neighborhood -- and I'm sure most dioceses possess a bishop who's a strong off-stage presence but is rarely actually seen in the poorer parishes.

As the book progresses, the reader learns what brought Father Hugh to "old St. Paul's," a church that has definitely seen better days. The rectory is large enough to house half a dozen priests, which the parish did need in the past, but when Father Hugh arrives, it's just him. He does acquire a curate, but the rectory is still much too large for just the two of them. The church itself is run-down. It isn't in desperate need of repairs, but it's shabby. As the bishop explains, the diocese has no plans to close the church, it still serves a need, but the money isn't there to do more than do the repairs needed to keep the place standing. Father Hugh arrives thinking of St. Paul's as a place he's got to pass through before he can go back to a "good" parish, a parish like the one he'd been pastor of before drinking himself into oblivion five years earlier. He'd done his time in rehab, he'd been rebuilding his life by filling in at various churches out West when a parish needed a priest for a short time, and now he was going to kill time at St. Paul's until the bishop realized he really was clean and sober and assigned him someplace better. He's going through the motions but not actually engaging with the congregation or doing what a pastor is supposed to do.

Eventually, of course, it does sink in that he's coasting. He never lost his faith, but he hasn't been living it. He has the requisite spiritual re-awakening, and life goes on. 

I was surprised I liked this book as much as I did. It was fun to read despite the occasional digressions by Father Hugh into expressions of faith or talking about how he'd never lost his belief in the church. On the other hand, I guess it's easier to read a book about a priest who actually believes than it would have been to read a book that went the other way, i.e., chronicled a priest who lost his faith. As for where I'd rank this book, I'd put it over on the high end of the scale. O'Connor could write, the book flows, it holds the reader's interest, and it left me feeling glad I'd read it.

As for just exactly what Charlie Carmody wanted, if you really want to know, you'll have to read the book yourself.

Next up, The Reivers by William Faulkner. Amazingly enough, according to the online catalog the L'Anse Public Library actually has it on the shelves. So now the question is do I jump right into it (i.e., pick it up when I'm at the library later today) or take the usual several week break between the most recent Pulitzer winner and the next one.

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