I’ve mentioned my book club once before on this blog. It’s really a great group of new and old friends and I’m so happy that it is a regular event in my life. This month’s book was a perfect example of why it is meaningful. The pre-selected genre was a National Book Winner and Kara (someone with great taste all around) picked An American Requiem, by James Carroll.
What an astonishing book. This was the emotional, cathartic memoir of a former priest who struggled to come to terms with a canyon-like divide between him and his very powerful father. And it is written in a style that takes raw feelings and memories and translates them into a stirring eulogy for a relationship. I can hear the author transcribing his emotions on to the page. His timeline is broken awkwardly in a few places and a few of his descriptions of events are less than clear. But aren’t all memories and experiences that leave a scar? We remember pieces—highs, lows, and not the exact dialogue. We remember feelings. This book is Carroll’s feelings, bled out all over the pages.
Many fathers and sons have their issues. That’s not new. But normal conflicts are exacerbated by the father participating in the planning of the Vietnam War with the son participating in the protests. Throw in an Irish Catholic family and you’ve got real potential for a jarring conflict.
Let me stop summarizing. Sometimes books are important not because of the stories they tell but because of the feelings they elicit from the reader. First—Carroll’s descriptions of his poet/mentor Allen Tate, his friend Patrick Hughes, and his brothers—these were reminders of many of the people that have touched me in my life. Not all correspond directly of course, but the way he wrote about the impact these individuals had was familiar.
The chapters about his faith, Paulist training, his Catholicism and his ministry brought me back to those days of campus ministry, Bellarmine, theology class and long dorm room conversations at Xavier.
And of course, dad. What was most heartbreaking about this book is that it doesn’t end with reconciliation. Carroll and his father end up permanently (at least in this world) separated from one another. The last lines of the book are like a gut punch. Read it and you’ll know what I mean. What a sad story, and what a perfect reminder of how fortunate I am. Dad and I have certainly had our rough patches—typical father son drama—but today, boy am I lucky. Fond memories far outweigh the arguments. I’m grateful for his advice and his perspective. And I’ll always be thankful for a very personal and important trip with him to visit the Vietnam Wall in DC. (Maybe the connection to Vietnam was why this book struck such a chord.) James Carroll wasn’t so lucky.
One final reason I like this book. If I were to be a history major, I’d want to spend my time studying the sixties. The War, civil rights, the political upheaval, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, King—so much material and so much crammed into one tumultuous decade. Carroll’s book is a personal history of the time. And it some ways, it’s more instructive than the play-it-straight histories by other brilliant authors. Against the backdrop of War in cities, War in the church, War in Southeast Asia, and War in cultures, this book showed how those Wars gave rise to Wars at home.
It’s been nearly 40 years, and we are still as a nation, as institutions, as families, as individuals, dealing with that damn decade. An American Requiem is one man’s personal therapy. And thankfully, it’s been shared with the rest of us.