Burned Down & Out

 Stealing Fatima, A Book Review by David Impastato for Commonweal (Sept. 6, 2010)

In a passage toward the end of Frank X. Gaspar’s Stealing Fatima, a wintry dawn on Cape Cod reveals an astonishing sight: within the ruins of a church recently destroyed by fire, a pristine statue of Our Lady of Fatima stands on a mound of cinders, a gleam of color “among the gray and cheerless arabesques of ice.” Missing from the parish for decades, the statue has suddenly reappeared, unblemished by the lost years. The mysteries of this morning lie at the heart of Gaspar’s lyrical and engrossing novel. How and why has the statue been returned? Where has it been? What part has it played in the lives of the characters the reader comes to know?

Stealing Fatima is Gaspar’s second novel, and like his first, Leaving Pico, its setting resembles the Provincetown, Massachusetts, of the author’s childhood. The original settlers of Gaspar’s seaside town emigrated from the Azores and the Portuguese coast, bringing with them their fishing trade, their festivals, and their abiding sense of the sacred. Now the descendants of the velhos mingle with seasonal boarders and “People from Away”—with artists, gays, and single parents, all drawn to the town’s charm and natural beauty.

The book’s central character, Fr. Manuel Furtado, is pastor of Our Lady of Fatima parish, home of the long-missing statue. Manny is a popular priest who speaks the language, both old and new, of his diverse flock. His parish numbers are growing; his accounts are trim; the archdiocese is pleased. Manny is also addicted to pills and gin, and his faith is in shambles. For Manny there’s a God out there somewhere, but he’s a God of silence—and nothing like the God of the Creed. Still, the priest cherishes ministering to the people he loves, and indulges his chemical habits only at night, when he has the rectory to himself. Fortified by a “familiar luxury crowning through his body,” he pens what he calls his Confessions—musings on the day’s events and the writings of mystics and theologians; responses to his own doubt and disquiet and the sense of “something bearing down on him.”

One night his reveries are disturbed by noises from the sanctuary. He descends warily to find an intruder, sickly and homeless, huddled in a pew. The man is not a stranger. He is Sarafino Pomba, an old friend Manny hasn’t seen in years. Not since the two of them, in their late teens and high on Benzedrine, lugged the statue of Our Lady of Fatima from the church in the dead of night and abandoned it in the dense marshlands outside of town. Now, dying of AIDS and a fugitive from the law, Sarafino has come to seek asylum with his old friend. He announces that Our Lady has personally instructed him that he and Manny must find the statue they once desecrated.

Manny has little patience for his friend’s visions, and hardly relishes the prospect of harboring a felon. The statue is clearly a lost cause. But he agrees to take Sarafino in, at least for a little while. His decision will cascade through the lives of his family, his friends, and his parishioners. It will turn his own buried past into a present anguish. Sarafino succumbs to his illness without fulfilling Our Lady’s wish. His death plunges Manny further into a crisis of faith and of the heart. As his dead friend’s obsession with the statue becomes his own, his substance abuse spills over into his daily rounds. Even as he feverishly seeks repentance and redemption, Manny becomes “unhitched...beyond any familiar terrain.” He stops eating. Entries in his Confessions are indecipherable. Then late one night the church burns to the ground, a catastrophic blaze Manny accidentally sets while intoxicated. He is badly injured but miraculously escapes death.

Gaspar is a distinguished poet, and he tells his dramatic story with a poet’s contemplative sensibility and gift of language. His descriptions of Cape Cod—a place he obviously knows and loves—not only convey the look and feel of the place; they also provide intimations of the larger forces and presences that touch his characters. In a rare moment of calm, Manny lingers in the breezeway of the church after a funeral Mass, watching the mourners disperse in the rain. Gaspar renders the scene with a diction that is tactile, evocative, and free of rhetorical strain. His sure rhythms suggest the interior motions of perception, and how epiphany can steal upon us unawares, under the aspect of the ordinary:

       He stood just inches inside the open doorway and witnessed the way the wind
       drove the raindrops into their brassy tattoo and how the downspout sputtered
       and gurgled. He watched the roil and spatter of the black puddles, the runoffs,
       the sudden rills, and in that moment he heard clearly how each separate thing
       registered its own report when struck by the drops—clapboard and shingle and
       car hood and bare tree and green tree, the asphalt and cement and brick, the
       tympani of the window glass. All at once. And there was in him a recognition
       of what peace—true peace—might possibly feel like. Just that recognition.
       Nothing more.

Gaspar’s power of suggestion is perhaps what allows his novel to be about so much so comfortably. Stealing Fatima is memorably many things: a story of discovery and surprise, of friendship and love, of the intricate web that binds our personal and social lives with our lives of faith. It’s also a story of historical memory, of a region and a way of life, and of a landscape that holds its people to itself like figures in a painting.

Finally, Stealing Fatima is a story about a priest. That perennial favorite of hacks and masters—the whiskey priest, the country priest, the naughty priest in his “ascent to hell.” We know them all; and, in varying degrees, we love them all. The metanarrative is almost always the same: the ordained and idealized are human beings like ourselves, sometimes heroic, sometimes unremarkable, caught between angels and demons, like the rest of us. But if this was ever news, it isn’t now. A gin priest in turmoil no longer provides the titillation that it did in the days of Greene, Bernanos, and Powers. Gaspar knows this, and so his presentation of Fr. Manuel Furtado is free of clichés about the mystique or exceptionality of priests.

Gaspar may have subverted a narrative genre or made it altogether new. Either way, Manny’s story emerges as an extended meditation on the fortress of the self, and on what must be endured for its transformation. We must lose ourselves to find ourselves. Or, as St. Mechtilde writes, “We must love nothingness.” That sentence both galls and galvanizes Manny. “God sets us to war with our own selves,” he blurts out at one point, but his story ends up reminding us of the treasure we sometimes find in the ashes of a burnt-out life.

 

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