Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 16

Brief Excerpt

The following is a small excerpt from the Prologue of my "novel", which I would describe as being in the opening stages of development. In this segment, Father Brogan is describing the first evening he encountered a young student journalist, and what happened to him before that encounter. It is only in its first draft and no doubt will experience many revisions in the near future.

The evening our paths first came to intersect fell softly upon the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape one week ago, the second week of May. It was a Friday evening, and I was just emerging from the residence hall where I live with my other Jesuit colleagues, so many of whom have come and gone in the course of the 34 years I have spent here. I had prepared for myself a tolerable supper of baked scrod, vegetable soup from a can and oyster crackers, but had eaten little of it, my appetite no longer bearing much resemblance to that of the young parish priest of the 1950s who thought nothing of retiring to the pubs of Chicago for beer and steaks and theological discourse. Today my appetite is a rabbity, frail creature even in its stronger moments. And on this particular Friday, I could not even bring it to bear on the small repast I had prepared, because of my distraction and, indeed, consternation over the assignment I had been given that very afternoon.
Earlier, I had presided over my last final examination period, and that was not even for my own students. When Brendan Russell, M.A., M. Div., one of our school’s youthful ‘lay theologians in residence’ had had to depart on a family emergency, he had asked me to sit in for him on his final examination. So I had done just that, sitting in the nondescript classroom for three hours while the students of Russell’s celebrated ‘Spirituality and Ecology’ course toiled through their essays on Heaven, earth, sea and sky, and all the connections therein. Far be it from me to weigh in on the possible fruits that all of this very broad, tolerant, far-reaching sort of thought could bear for these young minds. I simply sat mum, collected their exams when they had finished their creative labor, and reflected languidly on the fact that I would never again sit as proctor for my own or for anyone else’s examinations. It didn’t trouble me too much.
Afterwards, I returned to the office I shared with three other theology professors to check my mail box, more out of routine than for any other reason, for I had long since ceased receiving anything of value in the box. No more did young theology students drop off their term papers looking for my comments on their arguments, whether they were my students or another teacher’s. I wasn’t sure if there even were theology students anymore. No more did I receive the more cryptic notes, hand-written by troubled, agitated, or sometimes outright panicked students, asking to meet with me to discuss matters more difficult, perhaps more personal in nature, things that had nothing to do with academics or grades. The notion of approaching one’s priest as a counselor for moral concerns also seemed far in the past. No more did I receive invitations to cocktail parties, retirement parties, and other campus soirees. For many years these things were all frequent occupants of my campus mail box, and how well I remember the days when I felt as though I could not possibly keep my balance with all that I had committed myself to, only to return to the same office after teaching three hours’ straight on Aquinas, my head aching with the effort required to perform such an insane task, to find several more requests for my assistance, my time, my ear, to add to the ever-accumulating pile.
All of these things were gone now, passed into dust, as the Bible promises. Figuratively speaking, of course. So it was without surprise that I found nothing of import in my mail box on this day save a copied letter from the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences formally reminding all professors of the urgency of turning in their final grades on time and a flyer advertising the last session of the semi-popular ‘Theology on Tap’ series at O’Grady’s, the Irish-style pub they had built into the new Student Center on campus. Occasionally, when my frame of mind drifted off of its normal course into more ambitious waters, I had entertained the thought once or twice in the last few years to drop in on one of these sessions to quaff some beers and try to ‘kick it’ with students about theological matters. But this was something that would have appealed to my younger self, perhaps 20 or 25 years in the receding distance. The truth was I was too tired to seriously consider it, never drank beer anymore, and probably would have halted all semblance of amiable fellowship in its tracks just by crossing the threshold into the pub. I still loved the students. You can’t do this without that love. But their territories were clearly marked and their pursuit of liquid pleasure was not an arena in which an elderly priest would be on top of his game, or should be, anyway.
Having nothing left to detain me further in the office – my grades submitted, my small wooden desk from the 1960s mostly cleared of its contents – I passed into the small office where our rotating student intern and the Theology Department secretary, Jane Whittaker, shared some space. I wanted to greet Jane, who had been with the department for eighteen years, and inquire after her cancer-stricken son, a terrible crucible she had been facing for much of the year. But as I approached, admittedly thinking more about my own fatigue and desire to return home to rest than her son’s condition, she saw me coming, and collared me, as it were, with ‘an important message’.
‘You’re to pay a visit to the president,’ said Jane, a portly, gregarious woman whose gray-black hair had been held back by the same jade clip every day for all of those eighteen years. Why I noticed this sea-washed green color every single time I looked at her is something I never could explain. I blinked at her a few times. But there was no doubt that her ‘important message’ was intended for me.
‘The president, Jane? Are you certain you have that right?’ I asked.
‘Of course, father,’ as she insisted on calling me. ‘There’s no mistaking a call from the president’s office.’
‘I’ll take your word for it on that,’ I replied, wondering about this summons. ‘A debriefing, I suppose, although the timing surprises me. I thought young Jimmy would wait until all the pomp was over before giving me the send-off.’
‘Father Brogan. Come off it, now. No one is going to give you a “send-off”, and you know it well. Don’t say that they will. You know Father Chesterfield would let you stay for another thirty years, if you were willing.’
I chuckled reflexively. ‘Even if I were, Jane, I doubt that God is willing to impose that on this community. But one never knows.’ I winked at her, thanked her, and then promptly wandered off, without asking after her son. In another time, before I became this old and so prone to distractions, I would have asked regardless. Yet, in fairness, a summons to drop by to see the president of the Jesuit University of Northeast Pennsylvania was an unusual occurrence indeed, and might have distracted anyone.


Duke Altum said...

Thanks to Mutt for this interesting first glimpse of the "novel" he's been talking about for a while now... it is a small bite for sure, but it definitely gives you some sense of who this Father Brogan character is and where he's coming from, at least in terms of his thinking... even with this small passage, I find myself reflecting on what a challenge this is going to be: shifting from the perspective of an old priest, to that of a young female journalism student, and then of course to that of a young family man in 1920's/30's rural Indiana... well, it seems that Mutt has set before himself a grueling regimen of mental and creative calesthenics in order to pull this off!

Father Brogan's voice here struck me in the following way: to me, you encounter here a priest who sounds weary, a bit cynical perhaps about the younger generations and maybe even the direction of the University he has served faithfully for years, and also maybe a bit jaded, period, about life in general. It sounds like he feels that he's lost touch with the students, and he might even be feeling a bit sorry for himself... hence his comment about not wanting to show up at the Theology on Tap event because his mere presence would kill any camraderie that was to be had there.

Now I believe this is all intentional on Mutt's part... it seems to me, from what Mutt's been writing about this project, that what is to follow -- his being interviewed and whatnot -- is going to come as a surprise to Fr. Brogan, and perhaps will, in the end, provide for some kind of connection with at least one student that will remind him of the obviously strong rapport he had with them in years past.

The overall tone of this passage, though, was one of weariness and a touch of melancholy. At least that's how it struck me. But then things are about to change, obviously, as he goes to the President's office to see why he was summoned.

The "voice" Mutt came up with for Fr. Brogan seems pretty credible to me, for the most part. There might be one or two words I would quibble with, as sounding either too obviously old-school ("repast"?), or sounding like a younger person ("insane"), but in general, I thought the language seemed to fit the character.

We need to see some more here to really get a sense of things, but it was good to get this first glimpse. Obviously Mutt is off and running on this thing, and that is a huge step forward... thanks for sharing a little piece of it here man! I'll be following the story with interest as it rolls on...

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, thanks for checking out this little 'teaser'. You're right, you can't possibly get a good sense of what is going on in the general story from what little is here, but the idea was to give a glimpse of the 'voice' of Father Luke Brogan, which you seemed to 'hear' on some level. I'm not sure to what extent Brogan is melancholy, although their is a whiff of it here, but you're right on that he is intended to sound 'weary'. He is tired, for certain; he's at the end of his career and he doesn't have a good notion of what lies ahead for him. You're also right that he seems to wallow in it a little, by saying things like how he'll stop any merriment if he shows up at Theo. on Tap or that he is getting a 'send-off' from the president. There is a pessimistic tone to some of his thoughts. Managing the separate voices of himself, the student and, of course, Walter Brogan don't feel too intimidating to me in the sense that there's only one of them that I will really need to focus on for most of the book, that being Walter Brogan's. Father Brogan only speaks in the first person as an old man in the Prologue and possibly parts of the Epilogue, and the student we'll hear from directly at the end of the novel, if all works out. It's Walter Brogan whose voice has to be the most authentic, and, of course, that's the one I have the least sense of now.....

But for now, I am going to be working on the Prologue still. The latest is that I just finished a first draft of it today, and I'm typing it up to dive into the revision process. That's when I will try to address such matters as the questionable choice of the words 'repast' and 'insane'....you'll probably spot more of these as you read more.....but that is the sort of thing I am counting on picking up on during my rewrites.

Once I feel somewhat satisfied with my opening Prologue, I'll move on to the serious challenge, which is Chapter 1, set in 1923.

Definitely appreciate your reading what I put up there. Stay tuned.