In fiction, it's hard for a Catholic priest to be just a priest anymore. He now seems doomed to be a symbol of hubris, a representative of some larger flaw in humanity or (more likely) the church itself. So it's refreshing to meet James Dressler, the narrator of John Reimringer's plainspoken but finely turned debut novel, "Vestments," which recalls the workaday, humanized priests of J.F. Powers. Jim isn't a complete departure from the usual clichéd sinners and whiskey priests; he's a drinker and he's disgraced. But he's also full-blooded in a way fictional priests so often aren't, and he stars in an admirably complex study of family ties.
The novel's opening pages define the ways family undercuts faith. Jim has returned home to St. Paul after leaving his post as priest in the St. Croix River Valley. The public line is that he's chosen to teach at a Catholic college in the fall, but in truth he was involved with a woman, though the details aren't disclosed until late in the book. His father is an alcoholic who picks fights in bars when he's not squabbling with Jim's mother, who's remarried. Jim's brother is about to marry, but has an infidelity streak. Jim plays the churchly mediator, but it's rote behavior. "I wasn't particularly spiritual," Jim confesses. "For me, the priesthood was work made meaningful by ritual."
Withholding the details of Jim's downfall gives "Vestments" its narrative thrust, but it also shrewdly evokes Jim's emotions, revealing how he dreads confronting what his mistakes might mean for his future. In the meantime, Reimringer fills out the personalities in Jim's orbit. Betty, his high school sweetheart, is a sounding board; his dying grandfather is a tether to his family's long history in the church; a roguish seminary classmate and fellow priest offers a glimpse into the sexual licentiousness that some priests allow themselves, and to which the church often turns a blind eye.
In capturing priests' intimate conversations, Reimringer reveals how readily transgressions are overlooked. ("They're too short of priests to stand on principle for long," Jim is told.) But Reimringer's novel isn't a critique of the church; he's more interested in understanding clergy as people than indicting Catholicism as an institution. Mission mostly accomplished: Reimringer occasionally gives chapters pat endings that overstate a conflict or irony, and scenes where Jim and his father refurbish a house together send a painfully obvious symbolic message. But Reimringer's own shortcomings never overwhelm the shortcomings of his melancholy hero. Rare is the fictional priest who gets to be a man as well; in "Vestments," he's free to be irreverent, failed and human.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.