August 24: “Altar Boy” by James McManus

Say hey, Story366! Busy day back at the old schoolhouse. On top of having to actually teach classes today—Monday is just syallbus reading—and then I had to ship some books—Jeannine Hall Gailey’s newest—to the distribution warehouse for Moon City Press. After that, I had to fall asleep while watching the Cubs, and after that, I had a Cub Scout meeting. During the summer, I usually do the part where I fall asleep while watching the Cubs. All that other stuff? Well, that complicates the napping.

After all of that, I was able to read a hefty story by James McManus from his collection The Education of a Poker Player, out from BOA Editions. I knew McManus by reputation, as he’s a bestselling author and a celebrity poker player, which is rather rare for Story366 authors. I hadn’t read anything by him before, either, nor did I know anything about him, really. Catching up, I found out that McManus was Catholic kid from the Chicago suburbs, just like me, and The Education of a Poker Player isn’t about learning poker (at least not early on), but about McManus growing up Catholic, almost becoming a priest, and then moving on to poker and other such sinful pursuits later on. The first story of the book is fifty pages long and called “Altar Boy,” and as soon as I got started, I knew I’d found my story.

“Altar Boy,” and all the stories in The Education of a Poker Player, is narrated by a kid named Vincent Killeen, whose family moved to Lisle, a southwest Chicago suburb, from New York in the late fifties. His grandfather died from a heart attack at 36, never meeting Vincent’s father, without life insurance, leaving his family in poverty. Times were tough, local Jesuit priests stepped in to help out, and before long, Vincent’s grandmother became the secretary in a parish rectory and Vincent’s father had a scholarship to both the Catholic prep school and Fordham University. Vincent and his family (he has five siblings) grew up with more opportunities because of this generosity, working-class suburbanites who liked the Bears and the … sigh … White Sox.

The story “Altar Boy” is a practically stream-of-consciousness telling of Vincent’s life as a Catholic kid in the early sixties. The story is in first person present and jumps from scene to scene, life event to life event, seamlessly and effortlessly. We have touchstones, however, that become themes. Everyone in Vincent’s family loves Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Vincent works him into every conversation whether he’s relative to the topic or not. His daily life is preoccupied by thoughts of the Holy Spirit, the mysteries of divinity, what boobs look like, and the specifics of what it’s like to burn in hell (for wondering what boobs look like). The plot of the story, more or less, is Vincent making his way through life, thinking about these things.

The real glory of “Altar Boy” is the voice that McManus employs for his character, this really sincere kid who just wants to figure out life, maneuver through the tough parts, enjoy the better days. He’s unreliable in that he buys all of the Catholic doctrine—and there’s a lot of it—hook, line, and sinker. In fact, it’s Vincent’s stern belief in the threats bestowed upon him by the priests and nuns in his parish that initiate the overall plot of the book, Vincent’s interest in becoming a priest. He doesn’t want to burn in hell, he doesn’t want his family to burn in hell (priests’ families get special dispensation, he’s told); the fact that wet dreams are really yucky is also a major factor.

Vincent Killeen is a proxy for McManus himself, more or less, as McManus is just telling his own story (the back cover calls these stories “autobiographical”). I found myself so attracted to  “Altar Boy” (wait, I should rephrase that …) because I had a similar upbringing, growing up Catholic and Polish (instead of Irish) in Calumet City, not far from McManus’ Lisle, and a lot of the malarkey that McManus was fed—e.g., the difference between the flames in purgatory and the flames in hell—was fed to me. My major absolution was doing my time after Vatican II so I didn’t have to deal with Latin like McManus (or Vincent) did. I really enjoyed all the altar boy vocabulary, words like paten and thurifer that I haven’t thought of in thirty years. More than words or sounds, I remember how I felt when I was up on the altar, assisting those priests, thinking that every mass I went to, served at, brought me closer to avoiding hell, to making up for what I thought were pretty terrible sins at the time (goofing around, going to bed too late, wondering what boobs looked like). I’ve read one other author who invoked these stories, Stuart Dybek in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, but even that’s been twenty years. So, a trip down memory lane, guided by a brilliant storyteller.

It’s late and I only read this long story from The Education of a Poker Player, the lead story, what I’m assuming is Vincent at his youngest. James McManus has a tale here, one that leads to priests, poker, and writing, and I hope to get to the rest of it soon.

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