Faith and Love Fight for Top Honors in John Reimringer’s Vestments
Book Review on Vestments by John Reimringer. Published by Milkweed Editions.
In a setting close to my heart, John Reimringer explores the life of a priest standing near the edge of cliff. The structure of the novel creates a mystery that drives you to keep flipping pages; first to see what led the young priest to the edge of that cliff and then to see if he will jump.
Vestments is a first-person narrative told by a young Catholic priest. The novel opens with the knowledge that after having led a small-town parish for two years, James Dressler finds himself forced to leave his church because of an inappropriate relationship with a woman. Now forced to live at home with his mother and work labor with his harsh father, James spends the summer digging up his roots and trying to see his future through the fog.
The book is sectioned into flashbacks that take us back as far as James’s high school days then move forward through college, seminary school and the two years spent leading his own church. The novel explores the complicated relationships of families, faith, death, marriage and commitment.
The constant struggle between conflicting desires is the heart and soul of this novel. At the forefront, James struggles with his desire to love a woman and create a family of his own or stay true to his vows but there are many more side stories that resonate with the same issue.
The novel is set in St. Paul, Minnesota and has a very rich and authentic setting. James and his family lived in a neighborhood near Dale Street, he attended college at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and led his church in a small, fictional town in northern Minnesota called Pretty Prairie.
As a life-long Minnesotan who has lived in the St. Paul area for the last three years, I can assure you the setting of Vestments is very real. Reimringer regularly mentions street names, landmarks, local bars and restaurants that any local would recognize. Setting a novel in a real and familiar place can be a comfortable way for an author to focus on other aspects of the story while still having a complete setting but Reimringer takes it further than that. The setting plays a very strong part of this novel, indicating major importance to James, the first person narrator. Whether conscious (by James or Reimringer) or not, a deep love for the city reveals itself.
As a Minnesotan myself, it added a unique pleasure when a familiar St. Paul landmark was described. Overall the setting worked very well but there were a few times when it was a little over done for my taste. One point early in the novel, James is driving through the back streets of the city with his father and the description of the setting completely takes over. Even with a special interest in the setting myself, this particular scene felt too unbalanced and should have included more action woven into the description.
As mentioned earlier, the novel opens in the present time when James has been forced to leave the church because of a relationship with a woman. Although we know something happened, the details are unclear and hold an air of mystery. The second section jumps back in time to James’s high school days and unearths his first real relationship. From then one, every other section continues with the present timeline while the others work their way chronologically through James’s younger years until they reach the point where the story began. This eventually reveals why and how he had to leave his parish.
The structure was well designed to keep an element of mystery. By the time the past has completely revealed itself, the reader is now interested in the present timeline and eager to find out what will become of James’s future.
A typical rule of writing dialogue is to start a new paragraph every time a new character speaks. This overwhelmingly common practice is broken at times by Reimringer. I will share one paragraph where I believe it is used effectively.
Before I left, I took Granddad to the grocery, where he had a long conversation with the cashier and called the bag boy by name. When we returned to his house, he spent forever getting the front door open, stooping over his walker, peering at the lock, trying to fumble the wrong key into the slot. When I reached to help, he battered my hand away. “I’ve got it.” “It’s the wrong key.” “I know that!” I rested on the cold wrought-iron rail beside him, like my sister waiting patiently while one of her children struggled into a T-shirt.
Although the lack of line breaks caught me off guard, it caused no confusion. It was very clear to me who was saying what and it kept the summarized scene moving along quickly while adding some direct quotations straight from the characters. I found this to be a very effective trick and will look for the right time and place to use it in my own writing.
Overall, the book was well written with a unique main character and plot line. The dilemmas rang true and Reimringer wove through the issues smoothly but I can’t say anything about the book really struck me as excellent. I chose to give this novel 3.5 stars but I would not disagree with anyone who awarded it more. Anyone who views priests as a cardboard cutout that do nothing more than pray and preach should read this book. Vestments is an eye-opening story that reveals a man’s dilemma between his commitment to God and his desire to create a family with a woman he loves.
How I found this book: John Reimringer visited one of my undergraduate classes as a guest author. The second section of this book was published individually as a short story titled “Betty Garcia” that we read in class. Once I saw Vestments made the list of “Top 15 books set in Minnesota” on CityPages I knew I had to read it.
Posted on March 11, 2014, in Book Review and tagged book review, books, catholic priest, faith, John Reimringer, Milkweed Editions, Milkweed Press, minnesota, priesthood, st paul, Vestments, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.