Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Vestments by John Reimringer

Author: John Reimringer
Publisher/Format: Milkweed Editions (2010), Hardcover, 304 pages
Subject: conscience, celibacy, priestly vows
Setting: Minneapolis/St Paul
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Review copy from the publisher

John Reimringer has written a stunning debut novel set in the twin cities of Minneapolis/St Paul.  Fr. James Dressler is 30 years old, a catholic priest who has come home to live with his mother for a summer while he decides what to do with his life.  He is struggling with the idea of celibacy, both in the abstract and the physical, and has been banished to the boonies by his bishop because of a momentary lapse with a young woman in the parish.  His only alternative seems to be a job teaching history at a local Benedictine college. In the meantime, he is earning money fixing up old houses with his father, while he watches his grand-father slowly die, and prepares to officiate at his younger brother's wedding.  Meeting his old girlfriend, who is separated from her husband, he once again wrestles with desire and the need for human contact.

There are wonderful backfills of how and why he decided to become a priest, of the lusty, bar-sprawling, blue collar, dysfunctional family he grew up with, of young first love and lover's regrets.  The characters are lushly drawn as are the stories of his childhood and his relationships with various members of his family.  The descriptions of the cities become almost a character of their own.  The influence of the landscape, the factories, the rivers, the entire immigrant culture are woven into a tightly knit fabric of reminiscence.  Multi-layered and multi-faceted, Reimringer's novel gives us a young man struggling to grow up and away from his father, struggling with young love and the decisions required when things don't go well, struggling to get away from the ugliness of a family who only communicate with their fists. The young Jim Dressler is attracted to the calm, quiet and ordered way of life the priesthood seems to offer.

Best of all, Reimringer gives us a portrait of priesthood and the Catholic Church of his childhood (both Dressler's and Reimringer's). It is a church balanced on the tipping point of the post-Vatican II era, where priests are trying to come to grips with change vs. tradition, with a more educated laity, and the reality of life as they grow older and lonelier. In an interview with Eric Forbes of the Good Books Guide blog, Reimringer says
"... I grew up devoutly Catholic, but as I got older I drifted to the left and the Church drifted to the right, and so I was writing in exile from the Catholic Church, which I deeply loved as a child, and whose rituals and people I still deeply love.  The Catholic Mass is one of the most beautiful rituals on the planet, and the average Catholic, parishioner or priest, is ill-served by the Church's leadership these days.  The novel is an elegy for what the Church could be and still occasionally is."
He gives us real people who are priests.   Real men who struggle with all the weaknesses, flaws and failings of themselves and their parishioners.  Real men who play poker, drink scotch, kiss babies, endure soggy sodden food prepared by sullen, disgruntled housekeepers, who go out in all kinds of weather at all hours of the night to offer solace to dying people, and work for hours to deliver decent homilies on Sundays.  He gives us a gut-wrenching picture of the loneliness of life in a rectory and the soaring joy of service to others.  Each priest in the book is an eloquent example of the diversity of the men who have answered the call to this way of life, and the sentiments, motivations, failures and victories of each.

Dressler's struggles and the anguish he faces as he decides where his loyalties lie will not be welcomed by very conservative Catholics, but readers will find a powerful portrait of love, repentence, redemption, and difficult choices made.  It is a book that can be appreciated by readers of all religions.

Vestments is an Indie Next selection for October 2010.  It's available now.  Do read it.

Milkweed Editions is one of the largest independent, nonprofit literary publishers in the US. Their missions is "To identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it." 
They have a winner with this book, and I thank them for the opportunity to review it.


  1. I'm a little worried about myself. I actually understand the Andy Warhol quote! Not only that, I agree that he was deeply superficial!

  2. well, I will skip this one because I just know it will make me angry. ;-)

    It is clear the author and i do not see the Church in the same light. To identify the Church as 'left' or 'right' is a fallacy. To think of today's Catholic as 'better educated'..well, certainly not in what the Church truly teaches and why. And 'conservative', I think there are faithful Catholic who believe the same, unchangable things Catholics have believed for 2000+ years and those who would rather except the 'wisdom' of the present day.

    Ok, I feel much better

  3. Caite...I expect this book will engender strong reactions from most readers. It is not a book one can walk away from and just say -oh.

    While the subject matter itself isn't what I'd call controversial- it's life as it happens- the actions of the characters will be viewed differently by each reader.

    Thanks so much for your always honest opinions.


Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.