Thursday, May 12, 2016

Scott Pomfret's New Novel Only Say the Word: Book Notes

In a few days, Nine Star Press will release Scott Pomfret's new novel Only Say the Word (Waterford: Nine Star Press, 2016). It's available now via Kindle, and I've just had the pleasure of reading it. I'd like to share a few notes with you.

First, as a Q&A Amber Taufen has done with Scott notes, he's that anomaly — a gay Catholic who remains a practicing Catholic, while living in a partnered relationship — who somehow manages to hang on by his fingernails though he has experienced abusive treatment at the hands of Catholic officials. As the Q&A notes, in 2008, his parish, St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, removed him from his position as a lector after he published his book Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir (NY: Arcade, 2008). 

As Scott tells Amber Taufen in the Q&A interview, his goal in trying to maintain some connection to the Catholic institution as an openly gay, partnered man is to keep his own spirituality alive, and to try to open a space for the spirituality of other gay people for whom a spiritual life is significant:

My one goal is that I want gay people especially not to throw out gay spirituality with the sort of Roman Catholic bathwater. In other words, you don't have to stay Catholic, but it would be great if you didn't throw out the entire spiritual dimension.

This does not mean, certainly, that he is deluded about the depths and effects of homophobia within the Catholic institution. How could he be deluded, given his own experience of being dispossessed of a church home in 2008, when he was removed from his position of lay ministry at St. Anthony Shrine? As he tells Taufen, living as he does in Boston, the epicenter of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church in the U.S., he's watched the hierarchy try to pin the abuse crisis on gay priests from the moment news of the abuse cover-up began to break; he's seen the hierarchy use Catholic Charities as a weapon against the LGBTQ community as the hierarchy has shut down services of Catholic Charities in Boston and elsewhere rather than comply with non-discrimination laws preventing the targeting of LGBTQ people; he's seen and heard the ugly harangues of members of the Catholic hierarchy about same-sex marriage as a threat to the continuation of the human race; and he has watched the Vatican try to deflect attention from the cover-up of clerical abuse of minors by barring gay men from seminaries.

Still, there's that spirituality thing: it's there in himself, and, in gathering material for Since My Last Confession, he heard it from many other members of the LGBTQ community — the hunger to live a life in which spiritual practice is evident, to find a community of faith that welcomes LGBTQ people seeking spiritual support and spiritual connections. All of these themes are evident in Only Say the Word, whose plot I won't spoil by recounting it to you in blow-by-blow fashion, except to tell you it's about a lector at a Franciscan parish in Boston, Colm Flaherty, who happens to have a strong spiritual gift, but who attracts the attention of a violent homophobe who was abused by a priest when he was a boy, and who is out to make someone suffer for what was done to him.

I say that Colm "attracts the attention of a violent homophobe": he's a gay man living with a boyfriend, and he's active in the struggle for marriage equality in Boston, details that the archbishop, who is intent to cover up reports of clerical abuse of minors, happens to ferret out as the book's narrative unfolds, and details which trigger the violent homophobe's reaction to Colm, as he observes the effect Colm has when he opens his mouth to read the scriptures at the Shrine's liturgies:

Each word of the Responsorial Psalm rose and swelled and burst, a shower of dandelion seeds scattered by a hard breath. Each verse was an aria, a long-held note, crystal, powerful, and pure, capable of shattering glass. Each phrase was a silken stream, a mesh of golden threads. Each was a hundred things at once, numerous as the hairs on a head or the stars in the sky, infinitely capacious and varied. The stutter was gone; Colm's voice seemed to have no limits. It was generous to a fault, straying beyind the walls of the church. Shy and ashamed, people scurried in off the sidewalks with a furtive glance left and right, as if it were a porno theater.*

As this passsage describing the effect of Colm's reading of the scriptures suggests, this novel is written in a style approximating that of magic realism. It's a rollicking mashup of three Irish Marys who run the Shrine behind the scenes and browbeat the hard-boiled, macho-heterosexual friar, Jack Falvey, who permits Colm to lector, not realizing he has a secret gay life. These stock characters are then mashed up with an oleaginous careerist archbishop whose primary concern, once that secret life is revealed, is to tamp down any hint of scandal, as he plays the anti-gay card and issues a decree barring open homosexuals from communion: no Masses to be said for the soul of that sodomite, if he wakes from the medically induced coma in which he was placed after his attacker shot him at the lectern! An imperative issued while this archbishop is directly involved with covering up the abuse of the priest-friend who had sexually molested the boy who then became the man who shoots Colm as he reads the scriptures in church . . . .

Archbishop Sheridan's imperative leads Falvey to begin to think in a new way about the huge disparity between how his friend Sheridan chooses to deal with the sins of the LGBTQ community, and how he deals with the sins of, well, almost everyone else in the flock he leads:

Jack spent time with his Bible. He counted five verses that could be interpreted as concerning sodomy. He estimated there were over nine hundred verses about the evil of the love of money. It was a shame that lying, deceit, arrogance, unkindness never seemed to get the same attention from the brass as sins of the flesh. He wanted to ask Archbishop Sheridan why he didn't spend more time hounding Jack's old buddies from BC, who were pulling down a mint in the office towers all around St. Anthony's, while the homeless and peniless congregated in Scollay Square.

You'll also meet, interacting with all of these characters, outrageous queens and ACT UP activists mixing it up with Fred Phelps-type protesters flocking from Virginia to pray God's wrath down on the Boston sodomites now expecting to sashay their sinful selves into churches and call themselves married, and you'll encounter a roiling, picaresque mix of characters from the multi-ethnic communities that make up the urban Northeast today — Santa Lucia processions and Vietnamese vendors side by side with Italian mayors boxing in gyms with streetwise Irish friars, all seeking spiritual favors from the saints enshrined at St. Anthony's, whose basement happens to contain boxes and boxes of files documenting the abuse of minors by priests over the years.  

This novel is, that is to say, hardly a straight narrative about contemporary Catholic life in the Northeast, or about the response of Catholic communities in that part of the country to the aspirations of LGBTQ people for rights. It is, rather, in the nature of a parable tinged liberally with the fabulous, which contains some very fine, provocatively written passages conveying spiritual insights, such as the following one describing an aperçu of Jack Falvey as he waves the censer at the start of a liturgy:

Smoke rose around him. There was something to be learned from smoke. From the way smoke handed itself over to the winds and eddies. Smoke's sole discipline was the only important one — it rose inexorably, offering itself unto God, expanding itself to the space allotted.

Or there's this from one of the three Marys who run the parish — Mary Donegan, she of the besmirched past that involves jazz singers and smoky bars and jaunts to Paris with men to whom she's not married — as she muses about why some people are affected by Colm's scripture reading while it's who he is as a loving and generous gay man that moves her, and not the timbre of his voice at the parish lectern:

What others heard in Colm, Mary did not presume to know. We all called a certain color orange, but what we saw when we saw orange may not be the same. A river ran through Boston, and it was always the same River Charles, always had the same name, but the water in the Charles did change day to day, and what a woman saw at one end of the river was not the same water a fellow might see at the other. But we all saw the same river nonethtless. Or we agreed that what we saw was one and the same, and that was all that mattered. That was what Mary meant by communion. One body, a thousand souls.

If you're interested in gay-and-Catholic stories, in discussions about why some gay people still feel tugs to the Catholic church or discussions about why and how gay people cultivate spiritual lives, or about the abuse situation in the Catholic church and its intertwining with institutional homophobia, this fast-paced, dialogue-rich novel with its cast of fascinating characters, will, I suspect, appeal to you. I recommend it to you.

*The review copy I read is unpaginated.

The photo of the cover of Only Say the Word is from the Nine Star Press online catalogue at the first link above.

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