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.

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§ 3 Responses to Tim O’Sullivan: “Father Olufemi”

  • Hi Aaron – well, I don’t feel so stupid now. So many promising elements to this story, and to me they added up to not-that-much. I’d love to know what the Pushcart editors saw in it. The final scene was so loaded – a crippled Nigerian priest walking off into the midwestern snow following a strange girl, wow, really? But it seemed like there was nothing in the story to support it, so it just seemed random, like the prisoner on the bus ended up feeling random.

    Oh well, another lesson learned, I guess.

    Thanks!

  • […] Olufemi” so distressed me, for its unfulfilled potential, I actually requested a consult from Aaron Riccio, who frequently reads A Public Space and, I figured, could tell me what I was missing if anyone […]

  • a reader says:

    Respectfully, having read this story like you I have to give my positive impression of the story and say, “Father Olufem” is a great story that shades in charcoal greys the complexity within a man — the priest Father Olufemi, a religious/questioning priest (complex), is rather morally attuned/sensitive to *as well* as enamoured with the fallen, beautiful, sensual world around him, and thus he carries out the primary religious duty. He is a man of flesh, and he is priest. The description of Father Olufemi is insightful then which is because he is sensitive to this calloused, hard world — and very much cares for this world too — his body is “an antenna”. And he’s in “pain” and uses something like an old man’s cane (the walker). The character’s physical damage and suffering, is representative of the human, believable response a person would have to a flawed, brute world.

    There are twentieth-century authors that write stories that don’t have a traditional “linear, neat plot”: case in point, Proust’s seven volume novel that ranges back-and-forth from philosophical passages about the nature of memory, Art and the artifice of social identity, and the moving life story of the character “Marcel” from boy to creaky old man, the novel in series is In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past). Another example, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels that pursue a “mental realism.”

    To say that a story needs to be “neat and tidy” and give a clear answer or resolution in twenty pages is to confine the range of human experience, as that human experience actually is. Is a person’s actual life anywhere close to a “neat, resolved plot?” Why ask the narration then to have the traditional plot? Even when a traditional plot is wonderful, greatly satisfying too. This short story “Father Olufemi” gives another narrative perspective on human experience – it’s about a priest on a bus of travelers that are reluctant comrades, conscripted to sit in a confined space (thus the recurrent prison motif) for ten hours, and the story captures the fatigued, nomadic, yet wondering, yearning spiritual condition our society is in now, for me.

    Sometimes, in this busy tech society there’s constant external stimulation in modern life, we forget the person that resides inside here, or neglect dealing with the vast world of the past, memory, disgruntledness inside this person. We are trapped inside from meaningful connection to another human, and stranger to ourselves even, as a result, an egg shell. And “Father Olufemi” is an exquisite story for being a remedy to that trend of fatigue and societal alienation. The story studies people in precise detail, it puts a microscope on the odd person on the bus we would discount, shuffle away from. This is a deliberate narrative technique that makes a chain of short stories within the larger frame story, that is the writer foregrounds “the mini-story behind” each of the secondary characters on the bus which is just soulful and moving, because it portrays the physiological inner story of the person from the nigerian priest to his hapless conscripted “flock” in bus transit.

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