I can’t figure out whether I want to recommend Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Lockwood’s memoir reminds me of David Sedaris: she tells stories about her surreal family with writing that’s so good (she’s a poet) but sometimes so bodily specific that you can’t decide whether to read it aloud or not.
Lockwood’s father is a Catholic priest (converted after being ordained in another Christian tradition, and was permitted to become a priest), but she is not religious and he’s a ludicrously boorish man. (Lockwood tends to see him either in vestments or lounging in only boxers, nothing in between).
Lockwood herself is no longer religious, so her writing on faith is a mix of insidious irreverence and Christ-haunted beauty. I just plain can’t decide how I feel about passing it on to others (I would not send it to a high schooler, certainly).
One of the parts I can comfortably excerpt is her writing on her singing lessons.
I thought a voice had to be about what you could do. It wasn’t until I heard Billie Holiday that I realized a voice could be a collection of compensations for things you couldn’t do. It could be an ingenuity—in the same way some writers wrote books that coursed between the boulders of what they couldn’t do, and went faster, tumbled over, fell in rills and rushed breathingly over the stones.
Lockwood’s poetical gifts are perfect for this topic. She captures what always struck me during my singing lessons: unlike practicing cello, where the teacher can reposition your fingers on the neck, can show you what she is doing on her own instrument; singing is taught by incantation. Nothing (or at least very little) can be seen or felt directly, since you are the instrument. The teacher must say something that produces an interior change indirectly.
She taught us the interior smile, since you couldn’t actually smile when you were singing. You had to arrange your face as if you were smiling except completely subtract the smile. It was impossible, singing was full of things like that. Singing was worse than Buddhism. It was no wonder so much of it was done in churches.
Here’s another one: “Open up the barn door in the back of your head.” This is what I’m talking about! It meant nothing but you knew exactly what it meant, same as poetry.
My teachers taught me to abandon the final consonant, so that certain songs never ended, so that you walked out of the room and into the sunlight with the song still continuing behind you.
This is part of the delight of Lockwood’s book. She makes her observations in these conjuring ways, painting a picture that reveals more than any direct instruction. It’s just that I don’t know about hearing her rougher views.