No reader of Patricia Lockwood’s irreverent verse would be surprised to discover that her upbringing was a perfect storm of oddities.
Her father, a naval veteran who spends most of his time clad solely in boxer shorts, calls his daughter “Bit” and drinks Irish cream liqueur. He’s also a Roman Catholic priest ― an achievement that, given the Church’s rather strict rules regarding celibacy in the priesthood, required a circuitous path through the Lutheran priesthood and a dispensation from the pope. Her mother, a colorful Irish Catholic matriarch with five children, frequently spouts bon mots grounded in paranoia. For example: “Did you know rats in big cities are getting aggressive from eating too many cigarette butts?”
Lockwood spent her childhood moving from rectory to rectory ― the Catholic Church prefers frequent geographical shakeups over allowing priests to cultivate deep roots in specific communities ― and, increasingly, imagining ways out. When her father bluntly informs her that there’s no money for her to attend the colleges she got into, she finds another way to escape: Falling in love with Jason, a boy she met online who shares her passion for poetry. She runs away with him. They get married young. Several years later, after he needs eye surgeries that force him to leave his job as a newspaper editor, he and Lockwood move in with her parents.
This is where the real action of the memoir begins. As a grown-up, married, extremely lapsed Catholic, living in the home of a traditional (in terms of gender roles) yet unconventional (in terms of clothing choices) Catholic priest and his deeply maternal wife, Lockwood experiences a maelstrom of conflicting feelings. She adores her parents and seems to have a particular closeness to her mother, but frequently finds them ludicrous. Home is familiar, but also alien; comforting, but also claustrophobic. Living in a rectory with Lockwood’s parents, a young seminarian, and copious crucifix-based art stifles them. After they move in, she and Jason “look at each other and realize, with sad certainty, that we will never have sex in this place.”
Instead, as they save up to move out again, Lockwood sits and reads with the young seminarian, periodically offering him educational tidbits about cuckolding and other sexual fetishes. In return, he lets her know that Satanism is “on the rise” in Italy. (“Understand,” she adds, “that hardcore Catholics get their news from different places than the rest of us.”) Her poem “Rape Joke” is published on The Awl and rapidly goes viral. She gets a book deal. She remembers her dad teaching her to swim and how her parents reacted when she first told them about her sexual assault. She goes on a road trip with her mom, who is slightly fastidious about a hotel bed that appears to have semen on it. “I guess a ‘fun mother’ wouldn’t care about all the cum?” she quips.
Her parents’ habits and catchphrases, her oddly religious yet profane upbringing, and her own mischievous attitude toward her childhood religion are the stuff of pure comedy, and Lockwood doesn’t waste a drop of it. Her parents’ and siblings’ over-the-top, slapstick wit seems so unlikely that she goes out of her way to note that she and Jason are constantly scribbling down her family’s riffs verbatim. Her family life needs no punching up. As a memoirist, she can milk all the humor out of human absurdity in one passage (“[M]y mother,” she writes, “is best described in terms of her Danger Face, which is organized around the information that somewhere in America, a house is on fire”). As a poet, she excels at painting familiar and unfamiliar scenes alike in startlingly unexpected terms, terms that force you to reevaluate your own mental pictures. Savannah, where she and Jason lived for some time, “looked like an enlightened underwater city with all the water gone, and seaweed still hanging in the middle of the air. Great mermaids flowed through the streets: southerners. The sun shone down because it was a blonde.”
The book, with its slightly off-color-seeming title, isn’t a lighthearted ode to her youth. She struggles with her father’s ingrained, prescriptive misogyny, which he evinces with the confidence of a man who assumes that his audience agrees, and with his fierce determination to have things all his own way.
And, as the daughter of a Catholic priest, she’s looking back on a childhood and young adulthood that took place in the eye of a brewing storm: the Church’s sexual assault problem and its long, long coverup. The book isn’t about sexual abuse by priests, and there’s no indication that Lockwood herself was ever a victim ― it’s just that the problem was so pervasive, and the coverup implicated so many in the Church hierarchy, that of course she was touched by it. An oily, ingratiating priest who taught at her school later turned out to have been a molester; the bishop she meets at a church dinner reportedly moved predatory priests from parish to parish to hide their crimes. Being deeply embedded in the Catholic community means knowing men of God who did unspeakable things.
It’s a testament to Lockwood’s way with words that glimpses of such grotesque wrongdoing, painfully candid reflection on her youth and her family, and countless sidesplitting anecdotes about her boxer-clad father and her safety-obsessed mother can not only coexist in this book, but weave together seamlessly, constructing a memoir that’s propulsively readable and brimming with humor and insight.
The Bottom Line:
Lockwood’s venture into memoir proves just as hilarious, textured and evocative as could have been hoped.
What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: “Funny, tender, and profane, Lockwood’s complex story moves with lyrical ease between comedy and tragedy as it explores issues of identity, religion, belonging, and love.”
The Atlantic: “Lockwood’s book is really a rather deliciously old-school, big-R Romantic endeavor: a chronicle of the growth of a mind, the evolution of an imagination.”
Who wrote it?
Patricia Lockwood is a poet and the author of two collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. One of her poems, “Rape Joke,” went viral in 2013 after being published on The Awl.
Who will read it?
Poetry buffs, former Catholic school kids and anyone who loves a well-executed memoir.
“‘Before they allowed your father to be a priest,’ my mother tells me, ‘they made me take the Psychopath Test. You know, a priest can’t have a psychopath wife, it would bring disgrace.’
“She sets a brimming teacup in front of me and yells, ‘HOT!’ She sets a second one in front of my husband, Jason, and yells, ‘Don’t touch it!’ She situates herself in he chair at the head of the table and gazes at the two of us with total maternal happiness, ready to tell the story of the time someone dared to question her mental health.”
“I submit that every man of God has two religions: one that belongs to heaven and one that belongs to the world. My father’s second religion is Nudity, or Underwear, to be more precise. There are some men who must strip straight down to the personality as soon as they would through the door of their castle, and my father is one of them. I have almost no memories of him wearing pants, and I have a lot of memories of his sitting me down for serious talks while leaning forward on his bare haunches. He just never wore pants on principle. We saw him in his collar and we saw him in his underwear, and nothing ever in between. It was like he couldn’t think unless his terrier could see his belly button. In the afternoons, he reclined nudely on leather couches and talked to Arnold Schwarzenegger while he shot up the jungle, and every time Arnold made a pun about murder, he laughed with gratification. As far as I could tell, he thought movies were real. He watched them in a state of alarming physical receptiveness, with his legs so completely open toward the television that it seemed possible he was trying to watch it with his butt. His default position was a kind of explicit lounge, with one leg up and the other leg extended, like the worst kind of Jazzercise stretch you could possibly imagine.”
By Patricia Lockwood
Publishes May 2, 2017
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.