Friday, February 5, 2010

"I want to be a part of the Gerasene Writer's Conference!"

Happy Birthday to Father Andrew Greeley – born 82 years ago today in Oak Park, Ill.

Yes, I know, I know….his controversy precedes him – and I don’t have the time or energy to try to hash it out. But all’s fair in love, war and the written word (if you’re a fictionist or poet, anyway…).

That said, I will note two things you may or mayn’t know about Greeley – he defended celibacy in the face of withering criticism after the priest sex scandal broke. Father Greeley may have his own reasons for loosening the strictures on celibacy – but the abuse issue ain’t one of them.

He also, from what I hear, has great reverence for the Mass and gets cranky about priests who are sloppy with the rubrics. He also tends to hang right of center when it comes to other elements of the liturgy as evidenced by his inclusion among the speakers at a recent shindig at the Liturigical Institute, Mundelein, Ill. – which dares to understand and teach the liturgy primarily in its sacramental context and not merely as a “pastoral” (alas, this poor word as been nambypambyized in the last 35 years or so…) excuse for institutionalizing liturgical abuses and thereby undermining the faith.

THAT said, we wish Father Greeley a happy birthday – and that he continues to recover from his accident of two years ago.

I also make a motion that we make him an honorary member of the Gerasene Writer’s Conference – if only because of his bold and daring use of the word “bricolage.”

Andrew Greeley on writing characters:

Where do my people and their worlds come from? They are all fantasy and fairy tales. Fantasy is not merely a distinct genre. All fiction is fantasy; a narrative of a world and people created by the storyteller’s imagination. My people leap out of the soup of my preconscious, the ever-flowing, ever-changing reservoir of bits and pieces of memory that my consciousness is always scanning.

I instinctively snatch some of these bits and pieces in an act of bricolage and thus create my people and their lives. I don’t develop them subsequently as the story sporgresses because the yare already, Venus-like, fully grown. Rather I come to know them more fully and understand them better.

They are very difficult at times, especially when they realize that I have vallen in love with them. They try to take the story away from me, an experience that the Irish novelist Flann O’Brien (ne Brian O’Nolan) describes vividly in his At Swim-Two-Birds (the name of his pub). The characters are so angry at the slow pace of the story that they come off the page, kill the author and finish the story themselves…

John Fowles (also Irish but Orange) in Mantissa tells of how a beautiful woman comes to life from the pages of the book, seduces him and then slips away. In a nod to his Green countryman, he gives the names of O’Brien’s killers to some of his characters.

None of my people have tried to seduce me, however. Good Irish Catholics that they are, they wouldn’t dream of it. Matriarchs or matriarchs in the making, they content themselves with telling me how I should finish the story. If I’m wise, I listen to them.
(from “They Leap from Your Brian Then Take Over Your Heart,” in Writers on Writing, ed. Jane Smiley, New York Times).

Excerpt from Father Greeley’s writings:

"One of our L trains is missing!"Sean Cronin, Cardinal priest of the Holy Roman Church and by the grace of God and abused patience of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Chicago, swept into my study with his usual vigor. Since he was not wearing his crimson robes but a gleaming white and flawlessly ironed collarless shirt with diamond studded cuff-links, it was not appropriate to describe him as a crimson supersonic jet. Perhaps a new and shiny diesel locomotive.

"Tragic," I said, pretending not to look up from the Dell 300mx computer on which I was constructing the master schedule for the next month in the Cathedral parish.

"And Bishop Quill was on the L train!!"

He threw himself into a chair which I had just cleared so as to pile more computer output on it.

"Indeed!" I said looking up with considerable interest. "With any good fortune we will find neither the L train nor Bishop Quill."

Out of respect for his status among the missing, I did not refer to our lost bishop by his time-honored nickname, imposed by his unimaginative seminary classmates - "Idiot."

"You South Side Irish are innocent of charity . . ." he replied. "You have any tea around?"

Normally he would have appeared at night in my study and commandeered a large portion of my precious Jameson's Twelve Year Special Reserve or Bush-mill's Green Label before he assigned me another clean up task. Auxiliary Bishops play a role in the Catholic Church not unlike that of the admirable Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction: they sweep up messes. However, it was morning, a sunny early autumn morning to be precise. Banned from coffee by his foster sister Nora Cronin, he was reduced to pleading for tea to fill his oral needs. Before I could wave at my ever present teapot, he spotted it, stretched his tall, lean frame to the table on which it rested (surrounded by the galleys of my most recent book There is No Millennium) and poured himself a large mug of Irish Breakfast tea.

"Great!" he exclaimed with a sigh of pleasure. The pleasures of being a Cardinal these days are, alas, few and simple. I waited to hear the story of the disappearance of the L train and its distinguished passenger. He continued to sip his tea, a tall, handsome man just turned seventy, with carefully groomed white hair, the face of an Irish poet, the political skills of a veteran ward committeeman, and the hooded, glowing eyes of a revolutionary gunman.

"So what was Idiot doing on an L train?" I asked, realizing that I was missing one of the lines in our routinized scenario. "Your brother auxiliary bishop," he said with radiant irony as he played with the massive ruby ring on his right hand, "was mingling with the poor on the way home from his weekly day of ministry in the barrio. Preparation doubtless for the day when he succeeds me."

Milord Cronin laughed bitterly. "He will never be able to learn Spanish which does not cause laughter among those who know the language."

"That, Blackwood, is irrelevant to the present story . . . His limousine driver was to pick him up at the Kimball Avenue terminal of the Ravenswood Line and drive him back to his parish in Forest Hills."

"Brown Line," I said in the interests of accuracy.

"What?" He exploded, a nervous panther looking for something to spring upon.

"The Ravenswood Line is now known as the Brown Line."

"The Ravenswood Line is the Ravenswood Line, Blackwood," He insisted with the sense of shared infallibility that only a Cardinal can muster and that rarely these days. "Arguably."
"So the train never arrived," he extended his tea mug in my direction and, docile priest that I am, I re-filled it. No milk. The valiant Nora had forbidden milk as part of her virtuous campaign to keep the Cardinal alive. "And Bishop Quill never arrived either."


"The chauffeur became concerned and called the CTA which, as one might expect, assured him that the train had arrived at Kimball and Lawrence on time . . . That's a Korean neighborhood now, isn't it Blackwood."

"An everything neighborhood - Koreans, Palestinians, Pakistani, some Japanese, and a few recalcitrant and elderly Orthodox Jews who will not leave the vast apartment buildings they built so long ago."


"Much safer than many others I could mention, some of them not distant from this very room."

"Who would want to abduct Gus Quill?"

"I could provide a list of hundreds of names, with yours and mine on the top."

"Precisely . . . Anyway, the chauffeur then called the Chicago Police Department and apparently reached your good friend John Culhane who called me about midnight. They have determined the L in fact never arrived at the terminal. Rather it has disappeared into thin air and, Commander Culhane assured me an hour ago, so has the Most Reverend Augustus O'Sullivan Quill."

I almost said, "Deo Gratias."

Instead I took a firm stand for right reason and common sense. "L trains do not disappear," I insisted. "Neither, alas, do auxiliary bishops, though sometimes they are treated as if they do not in fact exist . . ."

Milord Cronin waved away my self-pity.

"The CTA is searching frantically for their missing train. The police are searching frantically for the missing bishop. He was the only one on the train at the last stop. The driver has disappeared too. The media have the story already. I hear there are cameras at the terminal and up in Forest Hills . . ."

-from The Bishop and the Missing L-Train

Andrew Greeley Assigment:

Rewrite the excerpt quoted above – changing whatever part of it you like: setting, dialogue, descriptions, point of view, characterizations, sequence of events and any other elements you deem necessary to show your own version of the story.

Now, the point of this exercise is to get at the heart of comic variation – which is commonly accomplished in one of three ways – through univocal, equivocal or metaphoric use of language. As you rewrite Greeley’s scene above, do so according to one of the following premises:

a) (Equivocal) One of the men in the scene owns, it is well known, an N-scale model railroad of the entire elevated rail system in Chicago. It is set up in the basement of his rectory and he is famous among clerical circles for the fastidiousness (“Don’t TOUCH!”) he demonstrates when showing the set-up off to fellow clergy and select parishioners.

b) (Univocal) Both men in the conversation think the missing train in question is an item from the beloved model railroad – which of the two is going to be more perturbed?

c) (Metaphorical) Either only one or maybe both men recognize the “missing train’ as code for something else – missing parish funds; lost virginity (we are talking Greely, here, folks!); lost dentures; stolen pectoral cross; etc. Perhaps only one realizes that this is a metaphor and the other is taking it as literal, unable or unwilling to “catch on” to the first man’s drift about the matter.

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