Sunday, June 28, 2009

West, punch list

There is a tenuous connection between my work story this week and Morris West's The Devil's Advocate, but since I want to talk about both, I will go ahead and make it. My workweek was half spent helping Mark Judge rock and tile my bathroom with subway tile, and half spent at the Naylor & Breen jobsite building "affordable" housing.

There are a lot of new guys on the jobsite, which is on the border of Winooski and Colchester, but Russ, Pat and Jimmy are holdovers from the old days of LWB, and Pat had only just arrived on site fresh from working with Doug in Cambridge. Of course, they three were happy to see me, and I them. My role is punch list (post stair installation--meaning kneewalls, soffits and handrail blocking) as well as cutting the notched stair stringers. Aside from the suspicious site supervisor (always), there was much laughter. Pat says (about a comment he just made), "no, that's not where I want to be when Jesus comes back!" Russ says, "I want to burn one with Miriam one day," and Jimmy confides in me about his wage being dropped $3 an hour. I feel as if these guys are my brothers.

And then there's Ben. Ben holds himself apart--not, I think, because he's the boss, but because he can't relate. After all, Doug (Ben's business partner) revels in earthy dialogue. But one very hot day last week, I went up to Ben's truck at lunch to ask a question, and he was hunched over, soaking his head and everything else with a bottle of water (he'd been up on the second floor deck setting walls with a crane). It seemed a very solitary and even private moment, and I'd almost not wanted to intrude. Later, Pat and I were sitting in the back of the Subaru laughing, and I (we?) were also watching Ben alone 50 feet away. When I first started working with him three years ago, I thought that he spent so little time talking with me about Japan, or Graham Greene, because he didn't want to cultivate that image in front of the rest of the crew--but now I see that it's not only that. I enjoy everyone (almost everyone) on the jobsite, on some level, and hearing them talk, well, it's like Studs Terkel's 'vox humana.'

And I remembered, in The Devil's Advocate, Meredith ruminates on this: "Other priests, he knew, found an intense pleasure in the raw, salty dialect of peasant conversation. They picked up pearls of wisdom and experience over a farmhouse table or a cup of wine in a workman's kitchen. They talked with equal familiarity to the rough tongued whores of Trastevere and the polished signori of Parioli ... They were good priests, too, and they did much for their people, with a singular satisfaction to themselves."

I like this novel very much, as I did Shoes of the Fisherman and Eminence, though it is a good deal older than those two Varican novels. In a way, it sets the precedent for them (and also the formula), but was written before Vatican II and the reforms of John XXIII. It's interesting to make a comparison of these three, because (in West's inimitable formula!) each main character undergoes a great personal transformation assisted by an impossibly ideal friendship (often between two unequal in rank) and in which the personal transformation has effects which reach into the personal lives of other characters in the novels, mostly for good. West is a Christian believer's author, where Greene is a Christian doubter's author.

Some elements of this 1959 work are surprising to me: West's rather sensitive portrayal of homosexuality (which gets even more sensitive in the more modern works) and his rather interesting portrait of the similarities and friendships between Jews and Catholics--a relationship I feel exists, but is often ignored. And West usually includes a man whose character is too beautiful to believe, but who the reader can't help but love: in this, it's Aurelio, the bishop of Valenta. Aurelio is the gentle push that sends Meredith into a renewed, if short life working as 'promoter of the faith' in a sainthood investigation.

Aurelio's suggestion to Meredith to carry a flask of grappa, and sweets, to Gemello Minore, brings me back, full circle, to work, and what it means to sit and listen and take part in conversation with people who live very different lives than me, to be as their sister, to be part of the human family.

Spooky Philadelphia (mew)

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