Poetry Madness
 
 

Bibliolatry
33 Halliburton in Hell
32 Mr. Fabulous Chicken Fricassee
31 Little Dictators
30 The 2002 B-TOY Awards
29 My Fitness Goals
28 A Streetcar Named Darlene
27 Operation Enduring Irritation
26 Au Revoir
25 Jeanette MacDonald Among the Ruins
24 I, Flannel-Mouthed Shave Tail
23 The Center of the Universe
22 Some Ketchup with That?
21 That Loathsome Guild
20 Honey-Sweet
19 Buff-Daddy Bookseller
18 Dr. Seuss, Heretic
17 A Smart Bomb Sampler
16 Bin Laden, Bushranger
15 Puppet Nature
14 Character Determines Fate
13 Fundamentally Changed
12 The Smell of Rodent in the Morning
11 Planet of the Bobos
10 Poor William Rehnquist
9 What Michael Pollan Learned From His Alien Abductors
8 We Are in the End Times
7 The Incurable Disease of Writing
6 Halitosis of the Mind
5 My Mommy Fetish
4 Sherlock Holmes Was No Fancy Boy
3 Joyce Carol Oates Scares Me
2 Global Warming is Getting on My Nerves
1 I. Don't. Like. Dave. Eggers

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Q&A | February 27, 2014

Rene Denfeld: IMG Powell’s Q&A: Rene Denfeld



Describe your latest book. The Enchanted is a story narrated by a man on death row. The novel was inspired by my work as a death penalty... Continue »
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    The Enchanted

    Rene Denfeld 9780062285508

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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very

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No. 22:  

Some Ketchup with That?

Editor's note:
We're not sure what to say. Carlisle's never written a nice column before, let alone a generous one. We'll just say this. The Catholic priest/nun struggling through difficult times theme has time and again proven fruitful literary terrain. So if you'd like to see what a real writer can make of it, why not try one of these truly excellent novels.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
by Louise Erdrich


"Lyrical — a lavishly written, diffusely plotted novel about the passion — both religious and carnal — of Father Damien." The Boston Sunday Globe

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Lying Awake
Lying Awake
by Mark Salzman


"Elegant....Salzman's depiction of Sister John's conflict, convent life, and this society of devoted women is a marvelous accomplishment." The Seattle Times

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Mariette in Ecstasy

Mariette in Ecstasy
by Ron Hansen


"A luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader's imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy...an astonishingly deft and provocative novel." The New York Times

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The Sparrow

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell


"Russell brings to this novel a keen grasp of the methods used by scientists investigating an unknown culture, as well as a deep appreciation for the varieties of religious experience. She has created a cast of interesting and likable characters in [Father] Sandoz and his crew mates and in the team of Jesuits trying to rehabilitate him..." Merle Rubin, The Christian Science Monitor

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Silence
Silence
by Shusaku Endo


"In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time." Graham Greene

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The Power and the Glory
The Power and the Glory
by Graham Greene


"The Power and the Glory's nameless whisky priest blends seamlessly with his tropical, crooked, anticlerical Mexico. Roman Catholicism is intrinsic to the character and terrain both; Greene's imaginative immersion in both is triumphant." John Updike in his Introduction

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Iran into Father Fergus last week. I hadn't seen him in years and was happy to see that he hadn't changed much. Oh, he's lost a little hair and gained a few pounds, but he still looks enviably young for someone pushing fifty. If that shaggy red beard is an effort to look his age, it isn't working. He just looks like Eddie Haskell playing a bit part in Fiddler on the Roof.

Yet despite his cheerful manner, his red, puffy eyes gave him away. Father Fergus looked like someone who hadn't managed a full night's sleep in weeks. I suppose these days every Catholic priest is feeling the weight of public scrutiny and the anxiety of an uncertain future. But I didn't want to say the wrong thing, so avoided the subject entirely. Later, I wished I'd been more forthright, had taken advantage of the opportunity to voice my support.

I've always felt indebted to Father Fergus. He might not even remember it, but that time he helped me out when I was a kid was really a turning point for me. I never even thanked him. Who knows what might have happened had he not been there to come between me and my baser nature?

No, Gutter Mind, not that baser nature. Well, if you're going to be like that, maybe I should simply explain what I'm talking about, tell the whole story. It is about time, I suppose. I don't think I've ever actually told it to anyone. It's one thing to remember one's most humiliating memory. It's quite another to intentionally share it with the world. But if some good comes of it, perhaps I will, in some small measure, have returned the favor.

÷÷÷

Unfortunately, to do it right, I'll have to start with that cursed dream — really more of a nightmare — that regularly plagued me during my formative years.

In the dream, I'm floating down an immense river on a modest Huck Finn raft. After landing at a large island, and setting up camp, I make a fire and hunt up a good wiener-roasting stick, just like a regular Boy Scout. Then, when the first dog is starting to pop and hiss, I hear a roaring noise behind me. When I turn around, the river is bubbling and roiling like warm Coke poured over ice.

Then, to my astonishment, a sturdy, toga-draped matron perched on an oversized half shell emerges from the churning water. Naturally, she's gasping for air and spraying water in all directions, so at first I can't tell who exactly it is that's crashing my Huck Finn party. But as soon as she gets a handle on her dripping and spluttering and starts to sing, it becomes clear enough. Only one person can belt one out of the ballpark quite like that:"There's no business like show business, like no business I know..." Then, as if I haven't been through this same scenario twice a week for years, I demand, "Ethel Merman? What are you doing here?"

Naturally, it's unnerving for a hormonal young boy to find a brassy Broadway diva haunting his dreams. But if my youthful imagination had left it at that, it wouldn't have been so bad. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of if, not by a long shot.

After clubbing my eardrums with a couple of numbers (she seemed to prefer "I Got Rhythm" and "Second Hand Rose"), Ms. Merman steps from her shell and splashes clumsily to shore. She then pulls an enormous squeeze bottle of ketchup from the folds of her toga and walks over to where I'm sitting by the fire with my wiener and offers "some ketchup w'th 'at, kid?"

It's not easy to deny the Queen of Broadway, so despite my reservations, I hold out my dog and Ms. Merman starts squirting.

At such a tender age, I wasn't yet able to appreciate, let alone make use of, the motherlode of Freudian nuggets my generous psyche was offering up in this dream. But any progress a competent psychiatrist and I might have made with Ms. Merman's help could not possibly have made up for the price this dream exacted. For when Ethel let loose with the dream "ketchup," my very real bladder would follow suit. In other words, every time Ms. Merman paid me a nocturnal visit, I wet the bed.

If you guessed that my bedwetting did not win me any sympathy at home, you're right. In fact, my own mother took to calling me Niagara, and the nickname stuck for years. No mind, by this point in my life, I had learned to deal with a little family shame. But Ms. Merman's true pound of flesh was extracted at St. Bernard's Preparatory Academy.

Besides the fact that we are Catholic, my parents sent me to St. Bernard's for the excellence of its educational program. And I did get a first-class education of sorts. I've always had a more intimate understanding of the seed of evil that bides its time within every human heart. And I suppose I have St. Bernard's to thank. And, of course, the Kennedys.

No I don't mean the Kennedys. But, if familial character is any indication, the vast Irish clan of the same name who sent each of their future fraternity presidents and captains of industry to St. Bernard's was probably a distant branch of the same lineage. The Kennedys at St. Bernard's carried their preppy nicknames and blonde good-looks with Hyannis Port confidence, disinterested condescension, and the social ease reserved for Old Money. Teachers loved them, other children's parents coveted them, and fellow students fought to be the butt of their rakish jokes.

However, though I never knew anyone to admit it, I suspected that not everyone adored the Kennedys as much as they let on. It was reasonable to assume that there were those who didn't appreciate being ignored every time Sister Mary Margaret O'Malley wanted to hear a Kennedy — and only a Kennedy — sloppily recite his Latin conjugations; that more than one boy hoped to throw off the cloak of invisibility that fell over the rest of us every time a Kennedy entered Father Liam Lonnigan's Algebra class; or that once in a while a boy fantasized about getting dramatic revenge for one of the Kennedy boys' incessant pranks. I suppose it's possible that I was the only one, but I doubt it.

Let me be the first to admit publicly that I loathed the Kennedys. Call it envy, or sour grapes, if you like, but ever since the incident in Father Fergus's history class, I have felt more than justified in my feelings.

Father Fergus was no ordinary St. Bernard teacher. In my day, he still had fresh-out-of-the-seminary freckles and the quaint faith that sullen adolescents would respond to sincerity and enthusiasm. And Father Fergus was sincere and enthusiastic. He was also smart, witty, and, we whispered incredulously, actually owned a copy of Aqualung. He told us that we were the best hope for the future and tried to instill in us the strong sense of personal responsibility that arises from both a love for the world and a hatred of its injustices. We were still boys, but Father Fergus insisted on treating us like men (even those of us who preferred jazz choir to football). Though the Kennedy boys took this in stride, the rest of us were unused to someone else thinking more of us than we did ourselves. Father Fergus made us both proud and vaguely uneasy.

We were studying the twentieth century that month. Our assignment was to make a visual presentation of one of the great ideas of the century. For example, one boy demonstrated racial integration by reading aloud the names of every "Pollack" St. Bernard's was open-minded enough to admit. Another used baseball cards to demonstrate the principles of Keynesian economics. But by far the most memorable presentation was orchestrated by that Kennedy boy.

Which Kennedy boy? To be quite honest, I was never quite sure. I should explain at this point that there were two or three Kennedys in each grade, and that it was rare to be in a class without at least one. I never understood how this was biologically possible. Mrs. Kennedy must have produced offspring in litters, like a cat (I'll bet she could have sold her story to the Enquirer).

The Kennedys at St. Bernard's were like snowflakes. Everyone knows that each one is unique, but you try telling one from the other. From our vantage, the Kennedys were indistinguishable, like the Doublemint Twins, or the Boys from Brazil. The point is, I can't tell you with any certainty which one — Ian? Sean? Killian? — came up with the following reprehensible presentation and possessed a heart black enough to carry it out.

The cocky golden boy sauntered to the front of the class carrying a plain brown box. He informed the class that he was going to demonstrate one of the fundamental insights of twentieth century psychology. He told the class that he would need a volunteer. Every sycophant in the class raised his hand so fast he nearly ripped his shirt. He scanned the room as though surveying his options, but then turned, as though randomly, to me and said, "How about you, Carlisle?" It is tribute to his cunning that I suspected nothing and, lowering my hand, naively accepted his offer at face value, the little creep.

After I joined him in front, he pulled from his box a McDonald's hamburger, handed it to me, and told me to unwrap it. Though I complied, I began to get nervous. It wasn't the hamburger itself that set my heart to pounding, but its close association with...ketchup squeeze bottles...like the one he was now pulling from his box!

Now, even though I despise the game, I had some time ago joined the chess club just to avoid the school cafeteria. The brainy members brought sack lunches and played chess in Father Derick O'Devlin's home room every day. Why? The cafeteria was swimming in ketchup, and my Ethel Merman dream had left me terrified of the stuff. Still unclear? Keep reading.

Once the brat had the ketchup out of the box, I began to panic: "N..n..no thanks, I don't want any ke..ke..ketchup." But he wasn't asking. Before I could finish my protest, he had ripped the top bun off the burger, raised his squirt bottle, and begun to pour. Oooh, I remember it like it was this morning: the warm liquid pouring down my leg, the cold wet spot rapidly darkening the crotch of my trousers, the shame of wetting my pants in front of twenty classmates, Father Fergus, and one indistinguishable Kennedy boy.

"And that, class, is a demonstration of Pavlov's conditioned response."

How on earth did he even know about my little affliction? I had only ever told one other person my Ethel Merman dream, my sister — who, come to think of it, had a crush on Malachy Kennedy (or was it Michael? or Martin?). Ooohh, I was going to get her. But first, I had someone else to take care of.

I knew it would not work in my favor to make a move there and then. I took the Jets in West Side Story for my model and played it cool, boy. But after walking in tennis shoes squishy with urine down a hallway full of hysterical adolescents, I was quite certain that this would not be the end of the matter.

There was one small problem. Who was the target of my revenge? I wasn't even sure which Kennedy had just become my arch nemesis. Who cares! One would do as well as another, right? I would just have to pick one, and go for it. As it turned out, the perfect opportunity presented itself right away.

The elections for senior class president were the next day, and there would be a school assembly to inaugurate the victor at the end of the week. As usual, there was no question that it would be a Kennedy, so I set to work.

I got myself a copy of Stephen King's Carrie, one of the greatest revenge stories of all time, and took a few notes. I was unsure where I might get my hands on a quantity of pig's blood. But then I realized that I could simply substitute ketchup for pig's blood — which was more appropriate, anyway — and you can buy that by the gallon at Costco.

After doing the lighting for the previous year's all male production of Brigadoon, I knew that auditorium like the back of my hand. So I had no problem hanging a plastic bag from the scaffolding -- right over the podium where the new president would stand to give his speech -- and tying it off in the wings to a nail in the wall. One turn of the nail would release the rope, which would release the "bladder," which would send five gallons of sticky sweet tomato sauce pouring down over my target. Delicious.

I was tackling injustice head on. Father Fergus would be proud. And next time, those damned Kennedys would think twice before messing with me, their very own Lee Harvey Oswald.

When the time came, I was ready. Of course, a Kennedy did win the election. It was Owen. Or Ryan. Or was it Nolan? — hell, who knows? After the assembly began, I made as if desperate for the bathroom and got permission to leave the auditorium. I headed straight to the back stage door and crept in. I slunk through the curtains until I found the place where I had tied off my little inaugural present. Everything was ready.

When Owen/Ryan/Nolan stepped up to the podium, I reached for the nail in order to be ready as soon as the perfect moment presented itself. But as soon as I felt the cold steel under my fingers, a hand grabbed my shoulder. It was Father Fergus. Uh oh.

"What are you doing here, Carlisle?"

"Oh…nothing…I was just…getting a good view of our new president."

"I see." He casually adjusted his white collar while letting his gaze travel from the nail in my hand up the rope leading into the rafters, then gave me a quizzical look. "You know, Carlisle, justice requires that every sin have consequences. But it's even more important that the punishment go to the right person." He gave his collar a more vigorous tug. "And though it's true, if it weren't for the name in the program, I wouldn't know which of those Kennedys that was out there — I hate to admit it, but to me they're as indistinguishable as fleas — but I do know that the boy out there is not the one who pulled that little stunt in class last week. I saw him off to the nursing home just an hour ago. He's doing community service to make up for what he did to you." When he took me by the shoulder and guided me back toward the state door, I knew that game was over. "You know, I saw Mrs. Kennedy sitting out there in the front row. Boy, I bet she has a lot of laundry to do. Don't you think she deserves to see her son become school president in a clean shirt?"

Immediately I regretted filling my sister's shampoo bottle with Nair, for suddenly I understood that every action we take has effects far beyond those we might have intended, that we must therefore act with extreme caution — that the extraordinary gift of free will comes at a high price. And that was it. I never thought about taking revenge on the Kennedys again.

Then, as if a bonus, one day a few weeks later I realized that I hadn't had a single ketchup dream since that day in the auditorium. And I never have since. I have no sensible reason to believe that Father Fergus was responsible, though I've never doubted that it was so.

So, if you're reading this Father Fergus, I would like to finally thank you. I would also like to suggest you take a bit of your own medicine. Even though people may lump all Catholic priests into one amorphous group, you are in fact only accountable for your own actions, which I know to be entirely honorable.

—Carlisle

     

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