Funny, Disturbing, but Worth Reading

Patricia Lockwood, knock on wood, is one of the funniest memoir writers I have encountered, and that’s coming from a veteran reader with shelves of dog-eared memoirs.  In essence, Priestdaddy is her irreverent send-up of life in the care of a bombastic Catholic priest, who, because of a special exemption for already-wedded converts, is allowed to serve parishes while raising his own family.

This Father Lockwood is no ordinary father.  When not wearing a clergy collar, he lounges around the rectory in tighty whiteys eating beef jerky or he retreats into his study to play incomprehensibly loud riffs on an electric guitar.  Lockwood describes his music-making as follows: “When the biological urge comes upon him, he lifts his curvaceous red guitar out of its case with a hushed reverence and cradles it in his arms.  Then he plugs it into the most powerful amp that’s legal in the state of Missouri and begins rocking himself into a frenzy.  It sounds like a whole band dying in a plane crash in the year 1972.  He plays the guitar like he’s trying to take off women’s jeans, or like he’s standing nude in the middle of a thunderstorm and calling down lighting to strike his pecs.”

While reading Priestdaddy, I laughed out loud and often, but I also found Lockwood’s humor disconcerting.  Maybe that’s because I’m a father myself and she lampoons her father so mercilessly that I feel embarrassed for not only him but all us poor male schmucks who are indicted by association. I find her a bit too clever for her own pen.  And I suspect that, like many humorists, the laughter is a way to cope with tough emotions that lie underneath, emotions that just start to peek through by the end of the book.

Priestdaddy can be compared to the comical memoirs of Anne Lamott or to the ever-expanding series of family stories by David Sedaris.   But those two writers have less snark in their voices, more self-awareness and generosity.  Perhaps Lockwood, who has a wonderful ability with language, has been a bit too shaped by her earlier work as a poet.  Like most contemporary poets she seems at great pains to avoid one unforgivable cardinal sin: sentimentality.  It’s my opinion that, if she was a bit less afraid of her own emotions, she might not need to ridicule as much and she might be able to shed more light on what is at the core of the memoir, how her father’s role in the church—and his support of the male hierarchy in Catholicism—did damage to herself and how she has been able to move beyond that damage.

A final note: there is one chapter in this memoir that makes the whole book worth reading, and that is the chapter “Voice,” which is essentially a stand-alone lyric essay about Lockwood’s singing voice vs. her sister’s singing voice vs. that of a girl who was the best singer in their chorus.  Presumably this piece is about singing, but it is really about much much more—such as transcendence and femininity and pain and “the intolerable sadness of the human condition.” If you read it, you will see that Lockwood moves far beyond comedic entertainment, letting her emotions ring through in a completely engaging way.  Like I said, it is worth the whole price of the book, so don’t hesitate to buy a copy.

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