WHAT DO BEING A PRIEST AND WRITING A NOVEL HAVE IN COMMON? I have been pondering this question ever since reading the book, Vestments, and talking with its author, first-time novelist John Reimringer. Vestments, which was published recently by Milkweed Editions, is a realistic novel about a young priest from St. Paul who struggles to maintain his vow of celibacy in the face of his growing desire for a woman. Now, I am neither Christian nor a huge fan of traditional realistic novels, whose formal conventions have remained unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century, but Vestments nonetheless succeeds in cajoling me, a twenty-first century, non-religious reader, into caring about its priest protagonist, James Dressler. How does the author do it? I know it has something to do with the sincerity of the narrator’s voice — a must, I imagine, for any good priest. And during an interview on the sunny porch of Reimringer’s St. Paul home, I find out just how carefully the author nurtured that feeling of sincerity which animates this novel.
Vestments began life in 1995, as a short story. James Dressler, the story’s narrator-protagonist, is the volatile son of an alcoholic, brawling, handyman. Reimringer says he based James on his college roommate, a tough yet gentle man whose father, a hard-drinking fundamentalist, loved to lay on the couch and argue with TV preachers. The author saw in this father-son dynamic a perfect jumping off point for his own, very personal exploration of family and church. He also reached back to his own devout German Catholic upbringing to make James’ attraction to the Catholic Church ring true. Reimringer says his family was a lot less dramatic than James’, but “that it’s a bit of a stretch makes the writing better.”
The author, whose laid-back demeanor and kind green eyes would have served him well had he been a priest, speaks reverently about the church he frequented as a boy, a wood-ceilinged building with huge wooden beams that come together “like an upside-down sailing ship;” he fondly recalls “the sensuousness of the Catholic rituals,” a “touchstone,” he says, for getting at his protagonist’s “Catholic point of reference in the novel.”
Despite of his affinity for the protagonist’s background, Reimringer says capturing that feeling of sincerity pulsing through Vestments required a lot of research. For instance, St. Paul and its history figure so prominently in the novel that the city itself becomes a character, but when Reimringer, who was born in North Dakota and raised in Kansas, began writing his book, he was new to Minnesota and its capitol. The author remembers driving around St. Paul, trying to get a feel for the places that James might inhabit and the kinds of things he might do there. He also put in some legwork. “When I travel, I just walk around a city, seeing it on foot,” says Reimringer. So, he approached his new hometown like a traveler, walking into places like Billy’s Victorian “one of the great working class bars of St. Paul,” and then stepping out with sights, smells, and a few great lines of dialogue.
In addition, Reimringer combed the Minnesota Historical Society archives and read books, like John Dillinger Slept Here, about the city’s past. Just as importantly, Reimringer’s own family history follows the development of St. Paul (starting in 1856, when his great-great grandfather became a U.S. citizen and ending with the birth of Reimringer’s brother), a fact that helps explain the nostalgic passion that runs through Vestments‘ St. Paul chapters.
“Realism,” says author and critic James Wood in his book How Fiction Works, “seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness or lifesameness, but [is] what I must call lifeness: life on the page.” Indeed, some of my favorite aspects of Vestments are the novel’s living, breathing, depictions of Midwestern priests: flesh and blood men full of human frailties. Reimringer carefully researched these lives, too, using information gleaned from books like Married to the Church by Raymond Hedin, an ex-seminarian who tracked his former classmates over many years.
The novel holds no formal surprises, following the predictable arc of traditional realistic fiction, but Vestments is so carefully constructed — each word works lyrically and intelligently to tell the story.
What really enlivens these characters, though, is that Reimringer combines his research with a deep understanding of traditional narrative form. He crafts dialogue, gesture, and sensual detail into scenes that bring these characters to life, as in the passage below, a conversation between James Dressler and his mentor, Father Phil, during an ice-fishing trip.
“Does it get lonely?” The fish struggled in my grip.
“What?” Phil muttered, working at the Russian spoon lodged in the corner of the pike’s jaw. He jerked a finger away from the teeth.
“Not having a wife and kids, I said. “Being a priest.” The pike was one long muscle. Its tail whapped against my knee.
Phil freed the hook and dropped his line back into the hole. “Greatest job in the world. He took off his black wool stocking cap and rubbed his bald head. He gazed at me shrewdly. “Got a hobby?”
“Huh?” I knocked the pike’s skull against a two-by-four, cracked open the door, and tossed the fish out on the ice.
“Get a hobby.”
WRITING A LITERARY NOVEL AND GETTING IT PUBLISHED both require a great effort of will and imagination. The journey is mostly solitary, necessitating a strong — some might say priest-like — faith in the writing process. Reimringer’s short stories were already published widely — in fact, he had won the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award — when he began Vestments, but that did not make writing a first novel any easier. He recalls revising the same couple of chapters over and over, until finally, during a retreat at the Anderson Center, he pushed himself to complete a first rough draft. Only after this step, he says, could he delve more deeply into details of character and setting. Five years later, when Reimringer’s wife and best reader, the poet Katrina Vandenberg, told him to “quit dithering around and get this out the door,” he knew the novel was ready to be sent to agents and publishers.
But the journey to publication wasn’t over quickly. “I thought it would be a hundred-yard dash, but, nah — it was a marathon,” says Reimringer with a wry chuckle. When the book didn’t sell to big New York publishing houses, John’s agent dropped him. Eventually, almost a decade after the manuscript was started, it landed on the desk of Milkweed publisher Daniel Slager; he loved Vestments, but asked Reimringer to further develop a few of the themes in the novel before publication.
Now, those years of patient effort have paid off. Yes, Vestments is a realistic novel with a predictable narrative arc — the action rises until it reaches a climax, the hero has an aha! moment, and is changed forever. It’s true: the novel holds no formal surprises. But Vestments is so carefully constructed; each word works lyrically and intelligently to tell the story. As it turned out, the fact that Catholicism and the priesthood are alien subjects to me has been anything but off-putting; rather, that novelty serves to keep the story’s details fresh and interesting. The author covers universal questions of spirituality, family and intimacy with bite, gentle humor — and sincerity. And, like any good preacher, he makes me care about the made up world of his book using the craft of good, old-fashioned storytelling and a heartfelt connection to his subject matter. And this is what well-made, traditional realistic fiction can do.
Book details and upcoming readings:
Find out more about the author via his website, www.johnreimringer.com
Upcoming author events include appearances at Morris Public Library, Morris, MN (Co-hosted by University of Minnesota Morris) onTuesday, December 7, 7 pm; Common Good Books, St Paul, MN, Wednesday, December 15, 7:30 pm
About the author: Alison Morse is a writer, teacher, and former animator. She also runs TalkingImageConnection (TIC), an organization that brings together writers, contemporary visual art, and new audiences. The next TIC reading will be on February 12, 8pm at the Soap Factory in response to Belongings, a site-specific video work by Rosemary Williams.