A tor­mented Catholic comes of age

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

AS mem­oirs go in this mem­oir-sat­u­rated age, Amer­i­can writer David Schick­ler’s is well writ­ten, it’s funny and it con­tains more truth than “truthi­ness.”

Schick­ler is the best­selling au­thor of a linked story col­lec­tion called Kiss­ing in Man­hat­tan and the highly re­garded novel Sweet and Vi­cious. He’s also the co-cre­ator and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the cable TV se­ries Ban­shee.

The Dark Path cov­ers the same ter­ri­tory as James Joyce’s clas­sic semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel The Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both books are com­ing-of-age sto­ries about tor­mented Catholic ado­les­cents who grew up to be se­ri­ous writ­ers.

Schick­ler’s tribu­la­tions are the re­sult of his teenage be­lief that he’s had a call­ing to be a pri­est. He re­al­ized that if you have the slight­est inkling that God wants you to be a pri­est, you must re­spond pos­i­tively.

The prob­lem: the Ro­man Catholic Church still in­sists that pri­ests re­main sin­gle and celi­bate, and Schick­ler feels strongly at­tracted to the com­pany of women and reg­u­larly en­joys the at­ten­dant sex­ual de­lights. Will he wear a Ro­man col­lar or a wed­ding ring?

“When I’m alone in church,” he con­fesses, “my mind and heart wan­der to­ward Mara (his cur­rent girl­friend and sex part­ner). Yet when I’m with her, I miss God and the dark, weight­less time I spend alone with Him at Mass.”

What he goes through to rec­on­cile th­ese con­flict­ing drives forms the of­ten-comic sub­stance of this mem­oir.

He re­sorts to karate, ex­ces­sive beer drink­ing, a fa­nat­i­cal Mor­mon room­mate, rough sex, psy­chotropic drugs, pri­vate school teach­ing, weird chi­ro­prac­tic self­ad­just­ments in pub­lic places and fre­quent an­gry de­bates with God.

When God does not re­spond and Schick­ler is in a quick­sand of de­spair, he an­grily ad­dresses his rants to some­thing that he calls “Lack-of-God.”

Whether he would have made a good pri­est, a Je­suit, is open to some de­bate. He cer­tainly would have been a quirky one.

His par­tic­u­lar kind of Catholi­cism is nei­ther con­ven­tional nor com­fort­ing. His is dark and de­mand­ing, ac­cessed via the dark path in the woods be­hind his boy­hood home. He isn’t a Mel Gib­son ex­trem­ist Catholic, just one un­con­vinced by the soppy plat­i­tudes.

But, as he says, the Je­suits have room for all types: “Mys­tics, Body-builders, Cut-Ups, ev­ery­thing. What they don’t have yet is a Kick-Ass Au­thor Pri­est who wins the Na­tional Book Award for fic­tion. That’s where I will come in.”

One day while teach­ing high school in Vermont, Schick­ler gives a stu­dent the first chap­ter of a novel he’s writ­ing. She com­plains that it has too much sad­ness. “Can’t it be sweet and funny too?” she asks.

It’s clear that he’s taken this sim­ple ad­vice in The Dark Path.

It’s sad that the church, de­spite its des­per­ate need for pri­ests, can alien­ate such po­ten­tial can­di­dates.

It’s funny be­cause of the odd­ball peo­ple Schick­ler meets and the strange en­coun­ters he has.

It’s sweet be­cause of his dis­arm­ing, self-dep­re­cat­ing at­ti­tude about his plight and be­cause of the warm em­pa­thy he has for oth­ers.

The Dark Path is not a per­fect book. Some story threads are not fully de­vel­oped. But this is hardly a fault. The book is so well writ­ten it leaves you want­ing more. It’s a lush oa­sis in the vast, arid desert of mem­oirs.

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