Books of The Times: Patricia Lockwood Is a Priest’s Child (Really), but ‘From the Devil’


These sentences are prime examples of Lockwood’s looping and elastic style. She injects whimsical imagery (spying dolphins, “violent bedhead”) into weightier reveries in a manner that can make your head, like the unlucky little girl’s in “The Exorcist,” perform what in ice skating they call a double axel.

Lockwood’s prose is cute and dirty and innocent and experienced, Betty Boop in a pas de deux with David Sedaris. When her stuff is good, it is very good. Witness her poem “Rape Joke,” which put her on the map, and much of the other verse in her sexy and endearing bummer of a collection, “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” (2014).

When her attention drifts, as it sometimes does in her memoir, the kookiness wears. Each sentence is its own quirky cameo appearance. Lockwood is a one-woman cupcake factory, and nothing is coming out of the kitchen unless it has sprinkles, curls, powdered sugar and, lastly, a filthy word piped onto the top.


Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

The good news about “Priestdaddy” is that it roars from the gate. Its first third is electric. It’s not just that Lockwood has fresh eyes and quick wits, but that in her father she’s lucked upon one of the great characters of this nonfiction decade.

Greg Lockwood is no typical Catholic priest. He’s a big bear of a man, fond of guns, cream liqueurs, pork rinds and flatulence as a conversational gambit. When the mood strikes him, he pulls out his red guitar and begins to make an inchoate noise that his daughter likens to “a whole band dying in a plane crash in the year 1972.”

The author is present on this planet (she calls herself “a human loophole”) thanks to the fact that when her father converted to Catholicism, he was already a married Lutheran minister. He received a dispensation from Rome to become that rarity, a married Catholic priest. During his daughter’s youth, he presided over churches in what she calls, in a biographical note, “all the worst cities of the Midwest.”

Greg Lockwood comes off, in his daughter’s telling, as something like a right-wing, pulpit-thumping version of Ignatius Reilly, the antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” (1980).

Walker Percy described Ignatius as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” That’s not a bad description of Greg.

He listens to Rush Limbaugh while watching Bill O’Reilly. He consumes Arby’s Beef ’n Cheddar sandwiches the way other humans consume cashews. He strides around in his underwear. He thunders about “feminazis.”

When his daughter gets a poem published in The New Yorker, he declares, bizarrely, that it was “part of The New Yorker’s mission to abolish age-of-consent laws.”

Lockwood manages to make her father not only more complicated than he seems, but also oddly lovable in his lurching way. She writes sensitively about coming of age — as a woman, and as a poet — under the Joe Cocker-meets-John Goodman rainstorm of his persona.

“When the patriarch of your family is a priest,” she writes, “it can be difficult to tell what is church and what is not.” Part of the story this book tells is of her gradual break from the church, her awareness that she is, as she puts it, “from the devil.”

There is lovely writing in “Priestdaddy” about social class. There was no money for the author or her sister to attend college. They tended to live near polluted rivers.

“A beautiful backdrop is an aesthetic luxury, same as shelves of books and music lessons and trips to museums on weekends,” she writes. “It is green, green money to roll in.” In its scrutiny of life outside America’s elite culture, this book can be read as a flyway companion volume to J. D. Vance’s best seller “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016).

Other good stories are told in “Priestdaddy,” including the author’s decision to run away from home at 19 with a man she’d met on the internet. (They were discussing poetry.) When he got sick and they ran out of money, they moved back in with Patricia’s parents. They remain married.

By its midpoint, however, “Priestdaddy” has begun to drift. Greg Lockwood mostly falls out of the story. The author no longer seems sure where her book is heading. Some of the scenes that feature the author’s combative mother have a tinny, cartoonish ring. This memoir limps home.

Serious incidents (a rape, a suicide attempt) flicker past too quickly. There’s a sense the author is not making things hard enough for herself, or for us. A lot is being swept under a colorful rug.

“Priestdaddy” is consistently alive with feeling, however, and I suspect it may mean a lot to many people, especially the lapsed Catholics among us. It is, for sure, like no book I have read. The Bible tells us to forgive our enemies, not our families.

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Source: New York Times



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