Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Ordinary Sins: Excommunicados: Stories by Charles Haverty (University of Iowa Press, 2015)

Katie Sticca
| Reviews


To a Catholic schoolchild—baptized, confirmed, slouch-shouldered at weekly masses and fully imbued with the weight of Catholic guilt—perhaps no threat is as solemnly terrifying as that of excommunication. To be cast out from a community that so thoroughly defines its moral parameters, to have done something so irrevocable as to be beyond the reach of forgiveness, is to be the embodiment of bad. Yet, with so much at stake, badness can’t help but be thrilling.

In the title story of Excommunicados, winner of the 2015 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, morally superior altar boy Lionel Detweiler is faced with his first experience of a divorcee, the enchanting mother of his classmate Toph. She defends the two boys from an unrelenting priest, to the horror of her son:
        Toph said, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
        "Don’t be a pussy.” I was astonished to hear the word in her
    mouth. I’d never heard a woman say it, not even Gretchen von Hippel.
        “What’s he gonna do? I’m already excommunicado. That’d be double
    jeopardy now, wouldn’t it?”
        “I’m not worried about you. I’m talking about me.” He jerked
    his thumb at me. “And him.”
        “You worried, Lionel?”
        “No, ma’am.” I didn’t want to be on Toph’s team. “I’m not worried.”
        The softness returned to her face and she was beautiful again,
    the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.

This exchange, the tension of “teams”—the good and the bad, the in and the out, the North and the South—and the struggle to find a place on the right side, is the greatest link between the twelve vastly different stories in the collection, all previously published in literary journals. In “Crackers,” a young boy tries to place himself between his mother’s Southern roots and his father’s Northern politics. When he discovers a closeted secret about his grandfather’s racist past, he sets in motion a series of events that produce unexpected consequences for himself and his mother. In “Scars,” a woman wants so badly to belong to the inner life her boyfriend inhabits that she unintentionally splits his head open in order to let herself in. The married couple in “All of Us and Everything” are so determined to be “good people” that they let their teenaged daughter attend a mission trip in Haiti, then suffer a long day of uncertainty when the catastrophic earthquake strikes the capital and they have no way of reaching her. Even as they are spared with the good news of her whereabouts and decide to celebrate, they’re confronted on their home turf with a tense opportunity to be “good” again and are surprised to find themselves on different teams.

Haverty depicts these inner conflicts through dry humor and quickly moving streams of consciousness. Nowhere in the collection does this style illuminate a character more than in his recurring protagonist Lionel Detweiler, whom the reader follows through three different stages of life. Detweiler first appears in the title story as a condescending boy trapped between the comfortable world of religion and the paralyzing beauty of lust, which he knows to be wrong. We later see Lionel in “The Angel of the City” as a married man with two adolescent daughters, navigating a trip abroad and his relationship with his family after an affair: clearly the odd man out. Despite his seeming irrelevance and the hostility aimed at him, or perhaps because of it, Lionel’s thoughts never veer far from the beauty and the sensuality of his surroundings:
    His espresso and pastry were placed before him…Whipped cream
    oozed out the edges, and he remembered the cover of a record album
    from his boyhood. Whipped Cream & Other Delights…a naked woman
    seated up to her deep décolletage in a mountain of whipped
    cream—half-woman, half-wedding   cake—touching one frothy
    fingertip to her parted lips. Lionel brought a forkful to his mouth
    and watched a woman cross the piazza in perfectly fitted denim. Her
    bottom possessed the fleshy fullness of some sun-ripened fruit. That was
    the thing about Italy: some salubrious something.

While Lionel holds his opinions of the female form in high regard, they rarely serve him well outside of his own mind, as when he drunkenly attempts to convince a confused burn victim of her beauty, or admires the backside of a woman in a gallery before recognizing her as his own daughter.

Misfortunes of this type—including another mishap in an art gallery where Lionel’s younger daughter sees him with his ex-mistress—follow him several years later to the final story of the collection, “Trappings.” As Lionel’s father-in-law passes away, he is confronted with two of his past selves: the altar boy and the adulterer. Though Lionel believes he made the choice to belong to the world outside of Catholicism, his father-in-law’s late-in-life devotion to the Church inspires nostalgia and self-awareness:
    His memory winds back…to waiting his turn outside the confessional
    and listening to the rush of whispers…as he tried to imagine
    the sins they were attached By the age of eleven, he envisioned
    the soul as an organ on par with the other organs of the body
    and situated due southeast of his stomach, a repository
    of palpable grace and sin. Within a year, this conception
    evolved into a rudimentary understanding of the male reproductive
Ultimately, Lionel doesn’t exclusively belong to any one of the teams he has aligned himself with, but he hasn’t been cast out of any of them, either. Like many of the characters in these skillful, surprising stories, he is impulsive and dynamic, unsure of how to proceed. Haverty knows that we are all at risk of excommunication in one sense or another, as we lose our way, as our inner and outer worlds collide.

Katie Sticca who received her MFA in fiction from Emerson College and is managing editor at Salamander.

“One Day I’ll Give Up Remembering” Land Sparing by Gabriella Klein (Nightboat Books, 2015)
Beautiful Doubt: A Manual for Living by Sharon Dolin (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016)