February 18: “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota” by E.J. Levy

When I was looking for stories and books to blog about for Valentine’s Day, I had a bevy of choices, as there is no shortage of stories told about love, from every angle, in every approach imaginable. I quickly found “A Wedding Story” in Debra Spark’s latest collection, and since I’d been eager to read from that book, I halted my search. Somehow I overlooked a book with the word “love” in the title, Love, in Theory by E.J. Levy, winner of a Flannery O’Conner Prize a few years back, which would have been a more obvious choice. The first story from this book, “The Best Way to Not Freeze” is more of a love story, in many ways, than “A Wedding Story” is, as the former chronicles a love affair from beginning to end, while the latter only focuses on the love part for the last 5 percent or so. “A Wedding Story” has a happy ending, while “The Best Way to Not Freeze” doesn’t, and since I’m happy and had a great Valentine’s Day with my wife, I’m glad I chose quality (in terms of the longevity of the fictional relationship) over quantity.

E.J. Levy’s book delivers on all kinds of love stories, really proving that its characters experience love … in theory. After all, love is not all chocolate malts and mizpahs, and the stories I’ve read from Love, in Theory present deeply complex scenarios, some of which have happy endings, some of which don’t, and some in which it’s hard to determine. But if you’re going to write a collection of love stories, you may as well run the gamut, leave nothing on the table, and Levy does that in her fine collection.

Ironically, or because it’s not Valentine’s Day today, I’ve chosen to write about one of the stories in Levy’s collection that isn’t a love story, “The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota.” Sure, there are elements of love in it, as in a guy is kinda sweet on a girl (who is actually engaged to another guy), but it’s the secondary plotline, at best. As you might guess, the story is about three Jesuses, it takes place in Moose Lake, Minnesota, and well, that’s more than enough to write a fantastic story about.

Our hero, last name “Corn,” first name never revealed, is an orderly at a Minnesota mental hospital, a self-described bouncer, who is in charge of keeping the peace amongst the populace, three of whom thinks, no, believes, they are the Lord and Savior. Outside of the brand of mental illness comedy we see on TV and in movies, it seems rare that this kind of delusion would be so persistent, committable persistence, and this ward has not one, but three such people, all at the same time. That’s why, I suppose, the leaked news has become a national sensation, interview requests and paparazzi abound. Our hero, Corn, just wants to keep sanity in the ward, make his job easier, and for a long time, this is keeping the three Christs apart, avoiding confrontation. Not so easy in a small mental wing, mandatory group therapy, eating, and leisure time part of the regular routine. But it’s Corn’s job, and as the son of a lifelong criminal, he still thinks he’s made a better go of it than his old man, an honest living, something he hangs his hat on.

This semi-peace is interrupted by two new faces. One is Karen, an observer there for her residency, her M.D. not quite secure. Karen forms a friendship with Corn, even though he is staff and she faculty. They eat lunch together and pal around. Corn starts to believe that he and Karen could be a couple, a great team, she the doctor, he the muscle, but when she announces her engagement to a guy he’d never known about, Corn re-ups his commitment as tough guy for the Lords.

More urgently, a new doctor comes to the ward, the new guy in charge, and he has a different plan for dealing with the three celebrity patients: Introduce them to each other. His logic is at least one of them might be tricked into recovery, having to confront two other people, in that setting, with the same delusions. Corn and all the other veterans of the wing smell disaster, and Levy keeps up the suspense, holding off on this confrontation until the end. The results are both expected and unexpected, and the end is absolutely perfect, one of my favorite denouements I’ve come across.

“The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota” is a funny, warm story, a one-time finalist for The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award,  my favorite in a collection full of good stories. I had the pleasure of publishing one of the others, “Theory of Englightenment,” (as “Natural Disasters”) in Mid-American Review quite a few years back, and have tracked E.J. Levy’s career ever since. She’s a talent, well worth investigating.

EJ Levy