“Only an Irish Catholic could be condemned to eternal Hell, and still worry that life would get worse.” “Young Digby Swank” by Owen Keehnen
Here we have Digby Swank, an unplanned child whose moment of conception was notable to his mother, Lila, who, with her alcoholic husband, Rog, atop her, uncharacteristically opened her eyes presumably when sperm met egg, saw paint peeling on the ceiling, and said, “That will never do.”
And, alas, it never did really do. At least, for her it didn’t. Knowing no other way to pacify this strange child who seemed intent on further complicating her barely manageable life, she showered with sugar and carbs—a mother’s love through the convenience of consumption.
The infant’s first notable expression was a smirk; his first word was “me.” His first lie was telling his caretaker, Grandma Swank, that he loved her.
Before we continue, an axiom: One doesn’t actually practice Catholicism, rather one is haunted by it. And, perhaps alas—for those of us who understand this axiom—Mister Keehnen’s narrative does haunt…over and over again, at times delightfully darkly so.
Raised in the dreary burg of Running Falls, schooled by nuns at Holy Martyrs School, living in a lower-middle class family, Digby’s world revolved within a kind of Dickensonian cosmos where, I believe, he did the best he could with what he had.
His Grandma Swank was a stern taskmaster whose rosary became a weapon as she swung it at him, the crucifix and beads becoming “…nunchucks of the lord…” intent on exorcising Digby’s left-handedness, something she believed gifted by Satan. Digby’s introspection, however—a key to his persistence in developing whom he would become—allowed him to recognize that he shared a “…commonality between [him and Grandma Swank]…a desire for a more dismal reality, or perhaps a world that more accurately reflected the darkness each harbored inside.” Digby’s environment, his family, his teachers, all of it (the major economic force in Running Falls was the Band-Aid factory, for heaven’s sake!) embraced as the dark sides of an abysmal dream as he submerged within it.
Digby was plump and effeminate. He was flamboyant. He acted out inappropriately amongst his classmates and was taken to task by Sister Clementia for his insistence on over-essing his esses. Sent to the school counselor, the conclusion was that Digby certainly had “…difficulty functioning on a social level at Holy Martyrs.” How could he not, when it was his belief that “God was basically Liberace and His pad was nothing short of a Vegas show palace.”
Oh, let’s just say that Digby was so queer, in so many ways that the multitudinousness of his spirit was self-eclipsing. At one point, he even thought he was the Second Coming incarnate— God Himself. Then, banished from Saint Martyr’s for a time, he found Walter, a student at the public school, who provided a more worldly sophistication for him to emulate. Walter was “…witty, urbane, and slightly aloof. …He was the Noel Coward of the tween set.” And, AND, Walter explained sexual intercourse to Digby, a watershed perhaps, the machinations of which were duly affirmed when he was allowed to return to Saint Martyrs where he found the coolest, most progressive, newly-hired teacher there had become Mister Beloni, who, Digby discovered, had a boyfriend, both cuddling on “…a tasteful avocado couch.” Ahem…
And so it went with Digby until…well, until “…a trim blonde in a Speedo, named Roland, doing laps in a [motel] pool…”
No, I won’t give you the epiphany. You’ll have to read Mister Keehnen’s albeit quite long, but equally insightful, astute, funny, dark study of this boy, Digby Swank…where Mr. Berman is the mailman.
Reviewed by George Seaton