On page 48 of her new memoir of growing up in the Catholic Church, Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood’s husband, Jason, undergoes surgery for a rare type of cataracts–to quote his own description of the operation to Lockwood’s alarmed mother, the surgeon slices open the surface of his eye, then uses “a little jackhammer to blast apart the old lenses so they can insert the artificial ones”. Except the surgery goes wrong: Jason’s right eye has “gone into Wonderland”, his perception of colours and distances is strangely warped, the city now looks like “a painting before the invention of perspective”. So Jason goes back to the doctor, who removes the new lenses and replaces them with a different kind. This operation is a success, “but the valley between what he saw before and what he saw now was too wide. It was like waking up in the morning to find that English had rearranged itself, or that all pretty women had been scrambled into Picassos.”
I had a somewhat comparable experience reading this book. The way Lockwood bends language, it feels like she reconfigures the very fabric of reality, shifting our universe into a parallel dimension where things are way stranger… and, often, hornier. In this new dimension, business men become jizzness men, saxophones are revealed as trumpets that want to blow themselves, men keep nine thousand pounds of bees as memoriams for their dead father, serious conversations are held about the theological significance of the Transformers movies. In a beautiful passage, Lockwood–until Priestdaddy best known for her poems and sexts–traces the origins of her verbal gifts to some form of “ADD” that, as a child, allowed her to only read the surface of words, and their real hearts, but not the actual information they contained: the word “violinist” was, to her, “a fig cut in half”; “calamity” was “alarm bells”; “word” was “a blond hostess in a spangled dress turning black and white letters over one by one”. Though she doesn’t explicitly say so herself, something similar appears to have persisted, as few things survive unscathed from an encounter with her polymorphously perverse brain.
But it’s true, it’s all true. Lockwood’s father, the titular Priestdaddy, really did convert from atheism to Lutheranism in a submarine, after watching The Exorcist seventy-two times; he really did become a Catholic priest, by special Vatican dispensation, when he decided Lutheranism wasn’t hardcore enough, despite the fact he was married and had five kids; he really does love shredding his guitar, lounging around in his underwear, and using a special Rag to wash his legs. Lockwood’s mother really does trawl the internet in search of stories of people who have died horribly (“‘Promise me one thing, Tricia’, she begs me. ‘Promise me you will never play that deadly game called Chubby Bunny.'”); she really does call incompetent drivers things like Mr. Silver Dildo (“That silver car is his dildo, Tricia,’ she says. ‘He’s compensating with that car.'”).
Ten pages into this strange, strange world, I almost gave up. I thought it might be too much. Could I really withstand a further 320 pages of Lockwood’s constant assault on reality as I knew it? Surely there are health risks–surely my own DNA could be altered. Also–ever since reading the only Discworld novel I’ve ever read–Guards! Guards!–I’ve harboured a deep suspicion for “funny” books, as, despite objectively recognising its funniness, that book, so universally beloved, never once made me laugh aloud, and, by the end, left me feeling hollow, headachy, and bemused. I assumed that, for me, comedy was a thing that only worked if shared with others, and would therefore work best in a film, tv show, or podcast, anything that could be shared with someone else, and, in a book, only if I read it aloud to one or more people. But, despite these misgivings, I went ahead and read another ten pages of Priestdaddy… and I was hooked. And even laughed aloud, on several occasions. Finally, I’d found my brand of literary humour!
But lest you think this book is a relentless orgy of surreal comedy, Lockwood also knows how to tackle serious subjects–how to use her literary superpowers for good. In particular, Lockwood devotes many pages to the Catholic Church and its relationship with pedophilia. After meeting a bishop her parents described as “a living saint”, Lockwood decides to google him, and discovers he had actually been “the first American bishop to be criminally charged for failing to report suspected child abuse”. This leads Lockwood to reminisce about all those “snippets” she’d heard floating around the house as a child, about computers being confiscated, about this or that priest being sent away, this or that priest being ordered not to interact with children. Her confusion when the first big scandals broke in 2002–she’d assumed everyone knew. And even now, she writes, part of her still feels traitorous talking about these things, breaking the code of silence. “All my life I have overheard, all my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of the we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.”
Priestdaddy is one of the best books I’ve read this year, certainly the funniest I’ve read in a long time. It’s been very hard to resist the urge not to replace this whole review with a list of my favourite quotes and passages, and indeed I think this is the review with the heaviest use of quotes I’ve ever written. But Lockwood’s language is like nothing else on Earth, and not using quotes would have been like describing new species of flora and fauna without providing photos.