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.
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.
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.