The life of a Manhattan Catholic parish throughout the 1930s and after is lovingly etched in this posthumously published semi-autobiographical novel.
At its center is a rich characterization of Friar Benigno (born Joseph Zoller), a priest at St. Ansgar’s (located in a West Side “Dutchie” neighborhood) who’s being honored for 60 years of service. Nielsen (a television producer, actor and author of two pseudonymously published earlier novels) sticks close to the viewpoint of Mario, the adoring kid who serves as Friar Benigno’s altar boy and “assistant,” protégé and sounding-board, and recipient of both Benigno’s hard-won wisdom and his down-to-earth stories—rendered in a delightful, ethnically inflected fractured English (e.g., “St. Francis he don’t move uptown like the rich people. . . . He don’t rob and steal and crook”). Benigno’s firm adherence to the virtues (of poverty, chastity and obedience), preached by his beloved Francis of Assisi, see him—and Mario—through such crises as the debate over whether to pray for the soul of a deceased “gangster”; mourning a presumed suicide who may in fact have only fled from his black-widow fiancée; dealing with Father Blaise (who plays organ too loudly for the choir’s liking), handsome Father Roland (who attracts previously irreligious female communicants) and efficiency-expert martinet Father Guardianus; and—in the novel’s best episode—dealing with the stoical grief of Tommy Hunding, a devoted caregiver to his younger brothers, even after one of them, a heartless drunk, marries Tommy’s girlfriend. These often very funny episodes are moderated beautifully by Mario’s confusion over whether to enter the priesthood or serve his country by fighting against Hitler, as well as the choice he makes, the ordeal he endures and the comfortingly familiar “miracle” that resolves his dilemma.
A lovely book that deserves comparison with Giovanni Guareschi’s portrayal of country priest Don Camillo and J.F. Powers’s memorable tales of fallibly human clerics. Arguably, in fact, a minor classic.