New Yorker Note: Reverend
30 Nov 2014
Among new short stories, those published each week in The New Yorker likely have the largest readership. My idea, then, is to post a few thoughts on each New Yorker story as they are published. We’ll see if this idea solidifies into a weekly habit or dissipates into an “I-used-to.”
This week’s story is “Reverend” by Tim Parks, author of many novels and translations as well as several short story collections.
This story, told in a realistic fashion, treads along a well-mapped path: man in late 50s facing divorce ruminates on relationships with mother (recently dead) and, especially, father (long dead). Parks is an experienced enough writer, though, to dodge cliche. The characters are distinctive and plausible, as well they might be since the tale is drawn from Parks’ own family.
The title refers to the narrator’s father, a reverend in the Anglican church. The central question of the story is posed explicitly in its second paragraph: “Who was my father? Thomas thought. ... Who was he for me? A son should be able to say what his father was for him. What part of my personality do I owe him?” (emphasis in the original).
Those questions are answered via a cradle-to-grave biographical sketch of Thomas’s father, the reverend. There’s a nervous breakdown (referenced more than described), a speaking-in-tongues phase culminating in an exorcism, a turn to sartorial concerns, and several holiday excursions, particularly one at the beach. Even so, these read less like events and more like someone flipping through an old family photo album. The language is not dramatic, and the structure distances us from the action: it is largely the life story of the reverend, as remembered by Thomas as he is sitting at a computer and writing down his recollections, with occasional snack breaks.
“Reverend” reads to me as more sketch than story, though I should add that I think sketches are fine things. The language is clear, the images concrete, the world of his family well-rendered. Questions are raised about how we find our place in this world, about change versus stasis, and about the nature of relationships. Those inclined to dig deeper would almost certainly be rewarded with some symbolic associations and imagery. There is a lot here.
But there’s not really a “pop,” either in the language, the events, or the resolution. Instead, moods are evoked and questions raised. We find out rather little about the narrator, save perhaps for the general origin of his “lukewarm” nature, nor do we get much sense of his mother or siblings. We come to know the Reverend, and yet we don’t seem to see him making many decisions. There’s not much agency here, at least on the surface.
To me, most of the interest of the story lays in its exploration of how religion shaped, mirrored, and sometimes fragmented this family. That is where it drew me in, and became something more than a technically masterful, but static, family portrait.
Disclaimer: The above is my initial reaction to the story, written without revision. “New Yorker Notes” are meant to be timely notes, rather than deep analyses.