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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Reverend" by Tim Parks

Issue: Dec. 8, 2014

Story: "Reverend"

Author: Tim Parks

Rating: $/Meh

Review: Meta-fiction is becoming so common in these New Yorker stories, it's almost not worth remarking on it any more. Told in close third-person, "Reverend" is the story of an English man named Thomas, now in his late 50s, who is looking back at his life and his relationship with his father in the wake of his elderly mother's recent passing and his own divorce. While not strictly "meta" in the sense that there is a clearly defined "story within a story," or that the story itself is about story-telling, the narrative consists of layers of memory, so much so that there is no actual present tense action in the story. Well, I take that back. Thomas goes out for a beer or something, but it's not anything remarkable.

Through these layers of memory, Thomas examines his relationship with his father, how he viewed his father as an adolescent and how he views his father now, and how those things come to bear on his current life situation: the dissolution of his marriage and his own middle age.

On a purely mechanical level, the experience of reading the prose and traveling through the narrative, "Reverend" put me off right from the opening sentence: "After his mother died, Thomas started thinking about his father." Begun in this way, the author is asking me to care about the memories of a character I don't even know yet. I can see a situation in which that might work, but in "Reverend" this kind of opening sets the stage for a slow plod through a lot of sweeping, warmed-over observations and reflections that took a while to resonate with me as a reader. It took me more than half the story to start to care about Thomas's recollections about his father and what they might mean.

That point came when Thomas relates an anecdote about vacationing with his mother and father at Deal Beach in England. Thomas and his father would wake up early each morning and go for a swim in the frigid water. In this scene we are given some action through which to observe Thomas's father through his own adolescent eyes. This, to me, is much more powerful and tactile than just being told "his father was this way or that way" or "Thomas felt this or that," a narrative habit that Parks relies on too much in this story.

Beneath the blandness of the surface narrative, however, is a touching meditation on family and on fatherhood, or rather "son-hood" if that's a thing. From Thomas's perspective as the quiet, compliant youngest son in a family beset by a few different strains of turmoil, Thomas feels a bit neglected and misunderstood but that's not completely by accident. As a young child, Thomas learns early how to manipulate people, how to "play the game" as it were, so that he remains unnoticed and out of the fray, where he likes it, all of which is an experience very common to younger siblings. Still and all, his relationship with his father remains distant, and his father dies before Thomas can have an adult relationship with him, a relationship which might patch up some of the holes left in his childhood upbringing.

And so, Thomas is left to patch up some of these holes on his own, truly on his own now that his mother has passed away and he is no longer forced to look at his father through his mother's lens. What remains is a sort of forgiveness, a sort of acceptance, and what Thomas perceives as a blank check to make the changes in his own life that need to be made, rather than live in inner conflict.

In my mind, "Reverend" misses the mark of being truly powerful story, but the material is there. Parks commits the Cardinal (though not always completely sinful) fictional sin of telling too much and not showing enough. When he does show, as in the swimming on the beach scene, a really transcendent moment of feeling is palpable; he communicates something without having to tell us what he's trying to say. I'd have liked to see more of that in this story and I think it'd have been a vastly more intriguing and more powerful tale.

Blogger's Note: This somewhat mediocre story aside, Tim Parks sounds like a pretty fascinating guy. An Englishman who has lived in Italy since 1981, he has written a score of what look like commercial-"ish" kinds of novels (meaning: intelligent without being "literature" per se and entertaining without being pulp) and translated almost as many books from Italian to English. I'm determined to read some of his work to get a better impression. If anyone knows the best place to start let me know.

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