Saturday, April 14, 2012

Essays That Delight and Wound: The Patron Saint of Dreams by Philip Gerard

The Patron Saint of Dreams
by Philip Gerard
Hub City Press
200 pages
Reviewed by Susan Kushner Resnick

Confession: I don’t always read books people I’m fond of have written. The reason: what if it sucks? Then what would I say? Um, nice cover. Or: Loved your use of past tense. And what if the work is so disappointing that I lose respect for the person I once admired? Imagine what that would do to happy hour.

I am fond of Philip Gerard, who was one of my MFA faculty mentors and has become a friend and colleague. I figured I should read his work before introducing him on a panel at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, so I downloaded his new book, The Patron Saint of Dreams. I started it on the plane and soon found myself both delighted and wounded by each true story, only slowing down to highlight passage after passage. Like this one:
Disappointment leaves a scar, a little stabbing blade that can ambush you even in memory. All the wonderful things that never came true, the things you had no right to expect but wished for anyway, believing in miracles or at least luck. The job you didn’t get, the award you didn’t win, the book that didn’t sell, the pretty girl who wouldn’t go to your senior prom with you.

And this one:
He swung at pitches like a man murdering his wife’s lover with an axe.

I can tell you, definitively, this book doesn’t suck.

The collection of pieces, most of which have appeared in literary journals over the past decade and a half, covers typically male topics with uncommonly rich emotion. Gerard writes about hurricanes, wilderness, baseball, his own heart attack, a modern-day shipwreck and spooky neighbors, among other subjects. But he’s really writing about grief, fear, regret, vulnerability and loss. Lest you think this is a book only for dudes, read this passage about his mother, from the title essay “The Patron Saint of Dreams”:
She understood, as I did not for many years, that suffering is not the only thing that comes to an end. So do all the things we love most. So do our own lives.

Even the essays that seemed as if they’d be less emotional, based on subject matter, shook me with their language and insight. In “Hardball,” Gerard describes the outfielders kicking at the grass like horses and that clear Vermont light, crisp as green apples. But this passage takes the story far past sports nostalgia:
Whenever I watch a big league game on TV now, I can’t help but think of all the guys who didn’t make it. Who almost made it. Who couldn’t hit the slick curveball. Whose defensive game was one step too slow, or whose character had some hairline fracture that revealed itself under the public stress of pro competition as under an x-ray. Whose timing was flawed, who guessed wrong just once too often, whose luck came just one swing short of stardom. Whose imagined future never came true, leaving them baffled, bereft of any idea of how to live out their adult lives.

One of the most moving essays, “The Thirteenth Hour,” is essentially a piece of journalism about a boating accident that infuriated and pained Gerard even though he’d never met its victims. But he knew, from his own life, what they’d lost.
They weren’t yet old enough to make the kind of moral choices that would define them. Who knows what kind of men they would have become, what failures and disappointments would have tempered the joy of their lives, or whether they would have led blessed lives, made loving husbands and raised precious children of their own, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, surprised even themselves with the mysterious and unexpectedly wonderful ways a life can unfold.

The only thing that bothered me about The Patron Saint of Dreams was the realization that Gerard is not as famous as he should be, given his talent. The chair of the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, he has published eight other fiction and nonfiction books, written radio essays, short stories and documentary scripts, and co-edits the literary journal Chautauqua with his wife, Jill.

But if he was as well-known as he should be, Gerard may have missed some of his best material. If there’s one coherent theme to this collection, I’d call it hopeful regret. Household names may be too high in the clouds to experience such a condition, or to express it the way my old friend does in “Three Portraits of Grace”:
Memory is not just about the past. Stories, like photographs, remind us not only of the suffering but of what was good and valuable before the world was made to suffer, and how to get it back.
I knew there was a reason I liked him.

Susan Kushner Resnick is the author of a narrative nonfiction book Goodbye Wifes and Daughters(University of Nebraska Press, 2011) and the forthcoming memoir You Saved Me, Too (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College.

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