There is a time in a book reviewer’s life when one opens the freshly arrived Media Mail package, cracks open a book, sits for a moment to check out the blurbs, and over the next several hours is never heard from again.
I’ve been on the couch, if you’re wondering, reading Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, which I hereby proclaim the memoir of the season. Priestdaddy is a memoir of lovely improbables: when Lockwood and her husband have a medical emergency, they find themselves -- after years of “tending the pigs of liberalism, agnosticism, poetry, fornication, cussing, salad-eating, and wanting to visit Europe” -- as having no other recourse but to move in with her very conservative family.
The most improbable aspect lies in the fact that there are no fights, no confrontations, no disinheriting and forswearing; instead, it is the most hilarious homecoming you might read. Lockwood's father is a Catholic priest—hello, current and lapsed Catholics: apparently there is a loophole, onward!—who, when not donning finely-accented robes and presiding over religious litanies, likes to lounge at home in nothing but thin underwear and rip electric guitar solos. He also has a soft spot for the movie The Exorcist, because once, deep in the ocean, under the “eerie, pea-soup light” pouring down inside the submarine where he was a Naval sailor, at the 73rd viewing of The Exorcist, he experienced a glorious conversion -- an event he calls “the deepest conversion on record.” Look out, Paul!
I meet Patricia Lockwood in San Francisco at a café in the Inner Sunset. The weather, mildly nice, means the cafés are full, and so we sit outside by the soothing sounds of screaming children and screeching cable cars. I begin by asking whether turning to memoir gave her the creative feeling of opening the floodgates after having avoided herself as a literary subject for most of her career. “No," she tells me, "when it came time to Priestdaddy I didn’t feel unleashed or free. I felt circumscribed, because it was about my family.”
Throughout our interview Lockwood is uniquely energetic, interrupting her sentences to say hello to babies, salute a very fat pigeon, and observe the terror of a pedestrian screaming for the cable car to wait. She keeps masterly track of our conversation, though, in a way I find impressive. Lockwood says that she chose humor over other ways of telling the story, and when asked what role humor has in the world of her memoir, she answers, “[Teasing] is a place where people can find common ground, you can deflate each other’s pretensions a little bit.”
One of the most mesmerizing aspects of Priestdaddy is the lack of confrontation, even while everyone is being utterly themselves; Lockwood and her husband behave like self-professed heathens, while her father and mother continue to behave firmly Catholic. “I think you have to enter into the spirit of it,” Lockwood tells me. “You go back home, and it’s a movie like Home for the Holidays and you just strap in, and go. In order to do that you do have to give up control a little bit. But that’s something I think I’m good at doing in certain circumstances. Of course, writing about it is a way to have another kind of control.”
Priestdaddy was finished a year before the election. Lockwood is sure that the memoir would have been very different had she written it during our current times. But “I don’t know if it would be as good," she says. "I don’t know if it would get to the humanity of them as well -- cause you are, I mean, you are dealing with human beings.
“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back [at] it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks -- which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”
What is natural to Lockwood is a kind of glimmering comedy where the heaven and earth of the low passions and impropriety meet English Literature. She describes some church-goers as “square-faced and blue eyed and gently brimming with pie filling,” who harbor a passion for fabric-appliqué banners that impinges on the “erotic,” noting they are never happier than when “scissoring big purple grapes out of felt and gluing them onto their felt.” Use of scissoring here, of course, is part of the kind of subliminal wordplay abound in the book. In a favorite passage, as Lockwood worries about whether her husband’s eye surgery will restore his eyesight, she wonders if one day she’ll have to be his eyes, and practices by describing a nearby perfume ad:
The horse is an erotic moonbeam, trampling across the shore of infinity. He’s eating the woman’s neck with arousal. She smells so good that the horse thinks he is a man. He wants to conceive a pearl with her and watch her give birth to it in the sea.
I interpret her humor as a sort of family heirloom. For one, there is her mother’s endless interest in questionable crime stories: “Who would have thought that a hug could be so deadly?” she muses, when reporting to the family on the death of a child who was smothered to death on his own teddy bear. Throughout the memoir, Lockwood's mother is like a hilarious news ticker sharing stories about the incoming threat of demonic rosaries made in China, Satanism on the rise in Italy, and a new kind of diarrhea that is killing senior citizens.
Lockwood thinks the family humor was formed in response to what she describes as her father’s blusteriness, and it is something she shares with her siblings and mother. “Maybe that’s just family language. You create a language, and I think in a larger family it becomes a very close-knit and more complex language.”
Probably the most original part of Lockwood's voice has to do with her inhabiting the language of the church, as a feminist and lover of tarot cards. She is as much a contrarian as her father, whose opinions are so full of opinion you cannot do anything else but appreciate them. There are, for example, his notions about cats. Lockwood writes:
My father despises cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be mean little hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, if given half a chance. Cats would have abortions for fun.
“It’s too funny, I mean,” Lockwood says, leaning forward over the little café table. “My dad is from that generation of dudes that when he was driving he would, like, look to the kids in the back and purposefully swerve to the side of the road if we saw something cute to freak us out and be like, ‘Haha, I’m going to kill it!’ It’s very hard to understand that mindset. For him, having a cat was the greatest outward sign of liberalism that a person can exhibit. So growing up it was like, You know, if you have cats you’re a pussy, basically, and in the most pontifical terms. And if you have a dog you’re a Republican! It makes no sense!”
Even though most consider Patricia Lockwood a funny writer, she thinks of herself as quite grave. “When I think about just being in a room alone and letting out a breath and putting my pen down, I think of myself as writing something serious.” Just so you don’t think Priestdaddy is all fluff and fun, there are also chapters devoted to child abuse in the church, as well as what it was like to be part of the early pro-life movement. Talking about the legacy of Catholicism, Lockwood says: “You can cherish the cultural things, but then there were the institutional things. You have to make peace between the culture that feels like you, and the institution which is your oppressor—in many cases the absolute enemy and the instrument of a great deal of evil.”
“A writer has a job to do,” she concludes. “And I don’t think we can do that job and get to be considered pure ethical beings. Sometimes it’s messy to write and you have to deal with that.”
At the center of this memoir is a father and a daughter, the patriarch and the feminist, and how these two opposites meet -- and perhaps here lies the secret of the living nature of family. In contrarianism, there is a zenith where all can meet as equals.
'Priestdaddy' is out now from Riverhead Books.