Confessional Woes

A curmudgeon swims in the deep waters of the soul.

First-time novelist Joseph Di Prisco must be a very funny guy. Confessions of Brother Eli fairly sparkles with humor that ranges from sophisticated to slapstick, in what some believe to be the most difficult writing to carry off. And yet, it's not only that. This is a novel that draws the readers in and becomes a serious meditation almost before you can put it down.

Brother Eli, a closet misanthrope, has joined the Holy Family's Brotherhood to escape from life. A self-described "disappointer as well as a card-carrying disappointee," Eli smokes too much, eats too much, drinks too much and suffers from "the death-dealing breath of a bear: equal parts bird carrion, green onion and gym locker." He teaches English at Catholic Preparatory Academy outside San Francisco, a place where both students and fellow brothers give him wide berth. A popular school T-shirt boasts "I Survived Brother E's Class." Even Eli realizes the miraculous nature of this feat.

Eli bumps along undisturbed in his XXXL clerical collars and tent-sized robes, stealing wine from the rectory and food from the cafeteria until one day when a transfer student appears in his classroom after being expelled from two other parochial schools. Nadette Nevers "deposited herself in the back of the classroom, and hung her head so low that all [Eli] could see of her was the long white nape, poised as though for the executioner's ax." But is she a sacrificial lamb, or something much more essential to the survival of Eli?

Nadette tilts Eli's world by beating him at his favorite game. She writes a paper on Shakespeare and "type[s] in cold blood" the word "thalweg." Di Prisco, with two books of poetry to his credit, and hence Brother Eli share an enchantment with words. When Eli has to ask the meaning of this word, Nadette advances to the top of his interest list.

Nadette explains, "I can tell you don't know much about rivers. I think of fluvial things a lot ... thalweg--it's a German word. ... A thalweg is the deepest part of the valley channel where the water flows. ... That's what Shakespeare was doing ... finding the thalweg. Finding the place where the water's deepest, and it's funny because in a real river the thalweg shifts around."

The thalweg, something he's lacked for as long as he can remember, takes on special importance for Brother Eli. Eli, who has "abhorred the blear, the buzz and, most of all, the incessant hum of life," becomes faced with a dilemma. A student cries for help. Should he ignore the plea and continue along his marginal life, or should he disturb his routine and risk himself? Eli realizes that an opportunity like this rarely presents itself and his task is to summon the courage to meet it.

The last third of Confessions of Brother Eli shifts course and tone. The comedy of Eli's life takes second place to his overwhelming sense of loss. Di Prisco steers the story on an entirely different path, as the novel becomes an elegant elegy for opportunities lost.

This is not a perfect novel, but it is one that takes risks and succeeds on many levels. Di Prisco offers an engaging sensibility and an opportunity to delve into the thalweg of a lonely soul.

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