Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A tormented Catholic comes of age

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As memoirs go in this memoir-saturated age, American writer David Schickler's is well written, it's funny and it contains more truth than "truthiness."

Schickler is the bestselling author of a linked story collection called Kissing in Manhattan and the highly regarded novel Sweet and Vicious. He's also the co-creator and executive producer of the cable TV series Banshee.

The Dark Path covers the same territory as James Joyce's classic semi-autobiographical novel The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Both books are coming-of-age stories about tormented Catholic adolescents who grew up to be serious writers.

Schickler's tribulations are the result of his teenage belief that he's had a calling to be a priest. He realized that if you have the slightest inkling that God wants you to be a priest, you must respond positively.

The problem: the Roman Catholic Church still insists that priests remain single and celibate, and Schickler feels strongly attracted to the company of women and regularly enjoys the attendant sexual delights. Will he wear a Roman collar or a wedding ring?

"When I'm alone in church," he confesses, "my mind and heart wander toward Mara (his current girlfriend and sex partner). Yet when I'm with her, I miss God and the dark, weightless time I spend alone with Him at Mass."

What he goes through to reconcile these conflicting drives forms the often-comic substance of this memoir.

He resorts to karate, excessive beer drinking, a fanatical Mormon roommate, rough sex, psychotropic drugs, private school teaching, weird chiropractic self-adjustments in public places and frequent angry debates with God.

When God does not respond and Schickler is in a quicksand of despair, he angrily addresses his rants to something that he calls "Lack-of-God."

Whether he would have made a good priest, a Jesuit, is open to some debate. He certainly would have been a quirky one.

His particular kind of Catholicism is neither conventional nor comforting. His is dark and demanding, accessed via the dark path in the woods behind his boyhood home. He isn't a Mel Gibson extremist Catholic, just one unconvinced by the soppy platitudes.

But, as he says, the Jesuits have room for all types: "Mystics, Body-builders, Cut-Ups, everything. What they don't have yet is a Kick-Ass Author Priest who wins the National Book Award for fiction. That's where I will come in."

One day while teaching high school in Vermont, Schickler gives a student the first chapter of a novel he's writing. She complains that it has too much sadness. "Can't it be sweet and funny too?" she asks.

It's clear that he's taken this simple advice in The Dark Path.

It's sad that the church, despite its desperate need for priests, can alienate such potential candidates.

It's funny because of the oddball people Schickler meets and the strange encounters he has.

It's sweet because of his disarming, self-deprecating attitude about his plight and because of the warm empathy he has for others.

The Dark Path is not a perfect book. Some story threads are not fully developed. But this is hardly a fault. The book is so well written it leaves you wanting more. It's a lush oasis in the vast, arid desert of memoirs.

Gene Walz, a retired University of Manitoba film professor, went to the same high school as the author (30 years earlier) and was also expected to be a priest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A1

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