Tim O’Sullivan: “Father Olufemi”
04/04/2012 § 3 Comments
Originally published in A Public Space, No. 10, 2010.
At the start of O’Sullivan’s story, a Nigerian priest recovering from hip surgery yet nonetheless traveling from Boston to Ohio to lead a small-town church (“He was replacing a priest accused of child molestation. He was as dark as could be, and from the photos he’d found on the Internet, the people of Halfestsus were as white as could be. He’d arrive a cripple”), marvels that the considerate bus driver — a man also too slight for his uniform — might be his doppelganger. He’s not; that’s quickly dismissed. Father Olufemi, taking far more than the recommended amount of painkillers, also dreams a lot on the bus ride, first of Nurse Chandra Jackson, the woman from whom his inappropriate thoughts may have encouraged him to flee, and later of his rich, upper-class hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Ogunye, whose scents our Father is obsessed with. These thoughts are dismissed, too: they don’t matter, not any more, at least, than the ex-convict sitting across from Father Olufemi, who seems unable to talk about his own crimes, nor the long-haired samaritan he’s speaking to. At one point, O’Sullivan shifts third-person focus to a six-year-old boy, Jason, who, out of boredom, sits next to the curious priest in the front row, swapping “stories” from the Bible (Jason’s are about mobsters and aliens); he quickly gives up on both the boy’s perspective and the boy’s interactions, as exhausted, seemingly, as Olufemi, who can barely focus by this point, so pained as he is by the vibrations of this travel. This might be another of those negative stories, where the central choice is one that works against the narrative itself, for it appears this is about a religious man losing himself, his connection, not finding anything:
Prayer wasn’t working. Ever since he was a child, Father Olufemi had liked to consider the body as something of an antenna, every bone and pound of flesh built by God to project and receive signals. But it was as if his new metal parts–the head of the femur, the socket–had ruined his connection. Not that he believed a direction communication could exist, but he’d always considered himself attuned.
So, too, does the story fail to receive or transmit any real signals to the reader. We get static-y fragments, the snippets you get whilst trying to tune a radio dial, perhaps (“God seemed to have pinned each town to earth with half a dozen church spires,” “conifers stood stiff and apart like gentlemen”), but we’re never getting the whole story, and at times, we’re almost getting more information about these momentary characters that he encounters than we are about Olufemi himself. I hate this; oddly, it seems as if O’Sullivan does, too, so why does he include so many needless descriptions?
He could muster no enthusiasm when Mrs. Ogunye showed the guests a chair and a painting she’d purchased that day. The colors of fabric, the pliancy of cushions, the details of chair legs and armrests–these things depended on one’s mood at the instant of purchase. Or worse, these things depended on one’s aesthetic. There was no mystery in the man-made. A chair was a chair. A picture hung in every house.
We’re told, early on, that Father Olufemi is the sort of desperate man who spills his life story to anyone who will hear it, and yet he doesn’t do that here, though he has more of a reason than ever to be desperate. He arrives in a snowed-in Ohio at the middle of the night; the man who is to meet him is not there. A random woman, trudging through the snow, sees him, and he attempts to follow her in his walker. And that’s where the story ends, with him losing sight of her, yet remaining upbeat and enthusiastic about his post. Has he been reborn, then, rebuilt with steel and forged into a harder sort of man, ultimately, the sort who is able to lead not just his small parish, but eventually, perhaps, the first black Pope? And, in irony of ironies, has this new outer strength come at the cost of his once-strong inner connection to God? The one benefit, perhaps, to writing a flimsy story, one that has no real plot, is that it allows the reader to inflate it, particularly now that this story has won a Pushcart prize. This is, perhaps, the strongest indication that we should do away with our expectations that a story — by dint of its publication — is inherently good. Some are flat-out bad, and some, like this one, are just frustratingly average.