Dispatches | May 25, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Paul Arrand Rodgers.

I first encountered “Parker’s Back” in high school, at the height of my zeal for Jesus Christ. It was assigned in one of the religion classes at the all-boys Catholic prep school I attended—social justice or ethics or something—and, passing out hand-typed copies of Flannery O’Conner’s short story, my monkish teacher enthused over the perfect Catholicism of its protagonist, O.E. Parker. I think my instructor, whose name is now lost to me, was missing the point, somewhat. O’Conner was a devout Roman Catholic, but, as is the case in many of her narratives, salvation—the focus and aim of every Christian faith I’ve heard of—is denied her hero by a cruel third party. I missed the point, too. I rushed to embrace Parker. I liked him. I was (and still am) jealous of his tattoos; his Sailor Jerrys, his pin-up dolls, and, yes, the cross he chooses to bear.

Entering college, I harbored thoughts of joining the seminary after graduation. By junior year, however, that plan was far, far behind me. I’d since declared my intention to study English literature. I began to take my creative writing seriously. Simultaneously influenced by Natalie Goldberg’s series of writing instructionals and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, I went around Cincinnati amassing a fleet of journals and folios (my favorite one crafted from the remains of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell on vinyl), launched a number of blogs (none of which survive) and set myself to the task of filling them out. I pulled all-nighters doing this, switching from poetry to fiction to memoir, taking brief breaks to critique the daily misadventures of Heathcliff, who, behind Garfield and Felix, is the third most famous comic strip cat. Had I bothered to finish The Golden Notebook before setting out to produce as many words as possible, I may have realized that Anna Wulf’s mental breakdown was partially driven by her impulse to compartmentalize her life, to contain it within the pages of four notebooks and strangle each of those narratives until, refusing to give their author a sense of closure, they were murdered.

Instead, I plowed on, writing myself into a constant state of exhaustion. Juggling extemporaneous writing exercises with my coursework, I sometimes went three, four days without sleep. I’d crash on Saturday, wake up late on Sunday afternoon, and dive into those notebooks, searching for something, anything, I could polish and hold up as art. Often, within those notebooks, I was confronted by a stranger. He had doubts about his faith. He had doubts about his identity. Slowly, painfully, I began to merge with this stranger. Depressed, I spent my evenings crying under the blankets in my locked dorm room. One night, my crying shook the lofted bed so hard it broke.

It was under these conditions that I had my second experience with Obadiah Elihue. I was asked by friends to be one of the leaders of a Campus Ministry retreat, and, doubting Thomas though I was, I accepted. I had to prepare an activity for 30-people to participate in and, wanting something silent and mindful, I created an exercise asking retreatants to write a faith narrative. Vaguely remembering “Parker’s Back” from high school, I purchased Everything That Rises Must Converge from Half-Price Books, copied a thick stack of the story, and piled into the bus for a weekend of prayer, tearful personal stories, group hugs, and ill-prepared camp breakfasts.

Reading “Parker’s Back” again in group, I was somewhat horrified. He finds Jesus—literally—but it’s rather charitable to look at O.E. Parker as a “flawed” individual. He’s a bad human being. Not on the order of The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but what’s clear here is the parallel O’Conner draws between Obadiah and St. Paul, the great scoundrel of the evangelists. It isn’t just that both O.E. and Paul begin their respective stories as bad men and end up redeemed, but that they both find redemption in that which their constituents find repulsive. For Parker, it’s his tattoos, which greatly offended his wife, Sara Ruth, even before his back’s rather literal transubstantiation into holy object. For Paul, it’s Catholicism, which literally knocks him from his high horse.

The difference—and, ultimately what makes “Parker’s Back” such a strong piece of fiction—is that St. Paul’s story is a closed loop. A bad man finds God and crusades for Him just as hard, if not harder, than when he chose to be His enemy. Paul’s reward, martyrdom, was the highest grace that could be given to the early Catholic. Contrast that with Parker, who, chastised by his wife for committing the sin of idolatry, weeps beneath a tree. Which seems like the more plausible conversion scenario: that of the bold, driven general, or the scared, hurt everyman?

My high school teacher contested that O.E. Parker was the perfect Catholic because he rushed headlong into the unknowable, sacrificing his own body to do so. I disagree. Parker knew exactly what he was doing when he trundled off to complete his tapestry of flesh and ink, but it wound up affecting him in a much deeper, more profound way than he originally anticipated. He ends up reborn, but not in the sense that his sins are washed away and forgiven; rather, he is new, raw material. He bends easily. He is susceptible to breakage.

O’Connor’s complete mastery of the short narrative need not be exalted here, though I believe there is a magic to the conciseness of the short story that exists in no other mode of art. Her characters here are drawn with broad strokes, but if you believe, as I do, that great works of art act not only as portraiture, but also as mirror, then those strokes allow the reader to flesh out Parker and his wife with personal experience. “Parker’s Back” stuck with me in the weeks that followed that retreat, as it does to this day. Upon third, forth, and fifth readings, it struck me that O.E. Parker wasn’t a “bad guy” at all; he’s just a human being, and no sudden declaration of faith can wash that away. I can think of two kinds of people who have that knowledge and who are humbled by it: the truly devout, and those who were formerly so.

Though Parker and I are traveling in opposite directions, I would once again embrace him. I think, despite our differences, we have come to understand one another. We contemplate the unknown. We attempt to contextualize it. We are confused. We weep. We have both been shattered and left alone to pick ourselves up. This is what great fiction suggests: not that the moment of catharsis is what’s most valuable to a human being, but the moments that follow. “Parker’s Back” ends with its protagonist weeping, but he is not beaten. There is yet ecstasy in the world. One of those ecstasies is pain. In O’Connor’s hands, it is exquisite.

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com