The Beginning of Calamities: A Novel

The Beginning of Calamities: A Novel

by Tom House

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Danny Burke, the unforgettable central character of "The Beginning of Calamities," is a shy, 11-year-old Catholic school student who is at once hilarious and mortifying. As a ploy to stay inside at recess and avoid the roughhouse in the schoolyard, he writes a play from the Gospels, The Passion of Christ, and it is produced at his school--a production that goes


Danny Burke, the unforgettable central character of "The Beginning of Calamities," is a shy, 11-year-old Catholic school student who is at once hilarious and mortifying. As a ploy to stay inside at recess and avoid the roughhouse in the schoolyard, he writes a play from the Gospels, The Passion of Christ, and it is produced at his school--a production that goes seriously awry.

Danny is the product of a quirky family, and destined to be gay. His story, set in the blue-collar Long Island suburb of East Islip in the 1970s, is a dark, domestic comedy of the awkwardness and agony of childhood. Danny's young fifth-grade teacher, Miss Kaigh, is impressed with the script of his Passion play and obtains permission to perform it for the class. But as word of the play spreads through other classes, Sister Regina, the principal, arranges for it to be performed for the entire school. The only volunteer actors are, like Danny, shy or misfits in some way. Danny, also prone to stuttering, wants terribly to play the role of Christ, but is prevented at first by his teacher and mother, who believe he could never pull it off. After watching with frustration as several boys fumble through and quit the part, Danny is given the role by default. Danny's initial quest for acceptance by his peers turns gradually into ever-greater identification with Christ and the pursuit of his own religious ecstasy. One thing after another goes wrong, at school and at home. Danny is encouraged in his increasingly unruly Messiah complex by a biblical character he fantasizes, a boy named Arram. In a surprise ending, the play's performance turns the school--and the town--on its ear the afternoon before Easter vacation.

The novel's title is taken from a section of the New Testament known as "the apocalyptic gospel," in which Christ describes the first terrible things that will befall the apostles as they continue His ministry.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
First-time novelist House turns a school play into a coming-of-age vehicle in his heartfelt but uneven novel, set in suburban Long Island in 1973. Danny Burke is an imaginative, painfully shy 11-year-old who goes to Catholic school and takes his religion seriously, so much so that he writes a play called The Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Danny's nervous young teacher, Liz Kaigh, seizes on the play as a way to rally her students. But the most popular kids in Danny's class disdain the production, leaving a collection of misfits to form the lackluster cast. Rehearsals are plagued by disasters: the narrator has a lisp ("Leaving Jeruthalem, Jethuth and Hith dithiples thoon reached the Garden of... Geth-themane"); the girl who's supposed to play Mary Magdalene is pulled from the play at the last minute by her mother, who won't let her daughter play a prostitute; and awkward, uncharismatic Danny, initially denied the part of Christ, plots and manipulates his way into the role, forgetting that he has horrific stage fright. There is a subplot about Danny's dawning realization that he might be gay. Though House writes with a sure hand about Danny's loneliness and longing, he never quite gets the novel's comic pacing right. The rehearsal scenes are overly detailed and sometimes plodding, and Danny's point of view is often interrupted with passages written from the perspective of the irritable, twitchy Liz and Danny's Valium-popping mother, Carol, both of whose interior lives are fairly tepid. Finally, the disastrous performance of the play, which involves a memorable act of audacity on Danny's part, doesn't build to the necessary climactic heights. 10-city author tour. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This first novel by an accomplished short story writer is set in the mid-1970s in a blue-collar Long Island town. Shy, awkward, 11-year-old Danny re-creates the Passion of Christ as a school play to be performed for his fellow parochial school students during Holy Week. Impressed by his initiative, Danny's young teacher, Liz Kaigh, gets caught up in producing and directing the piece, whose troupe of players is eventually composed of the class misfits. The author effectively depicts Danny's constant personal angst and spiritual longings within the context of religious suffering but also manages to add a note of dark humor. Danny's sexual awakening is also presented, as is his yearning for acceptance in his creation of an imaginary friend. Mixing pathos, irreverence, and a sense of befuddled impending doom, this novel is a kind of emotional roller coaster ride-one that makes the curious reader hold on until the final pages. For the less adventurous reader, it may at time be unsettling. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A caustic, improbably entertaining debut: an 11-year-old stages Christ's Passion for his Catholic school on 1970s Long Island, allowing him to enact the drama of his incipient homosexuality. Spazzy and prone to stuttering at the forbidden game of Keep Away, fifth-grader Danny Burke decides to write an Easter play in order to stay in at recess and avoid being subjected to his peers' merciless bullying. His working-class mother, Carol, pushing 40 and with two troublesome older boys already moved out and a husband who's never around, can't be bothered; she insists only that Danny play a minor role in the production so as not to embarrass himself (and her). Danny's mod teacher at Our Lady, Liz Kaigh, fresh out of college, seizes enthusiastically on the idea of the play and garners permission from principal Sister Regina to stage it. But when few of the popular children volunteer for roles, Liz-calling herself "Queen of the Lepers"-is left directing a ragtag group of outcasts and misfits. Danny, who longs to play Christ despite his teacher's grave misgivings, finds his increasingly ecstatic identification with the vilified Son of Man a sensuous expression of his homosexual yearnings, especially regarding whipping and nudity. He creates a special biblical kindred spirit, Arram, who lounges naked in his room and encourages Danny to be true to his nature by, for example, streaking across the backyard. As the moment of the performance nears, mishaps mount, and Danny sabotages the other Jesus-es so the role, at the last minute, falls to him, while Liz and Carol create mythical personas of each other thanks to Danny's fearful embarrassment that they might ever meet. They do, and the play is stagedin a resounding finale as snickeringly silly as it is gratifying. House brings an ironic verisimilitude to the scrappy fifth-graders and two leading women-yet an underlying sarcasm leaves an aftertaste of wistful cynicism. A tenacious exploration of identity and bad-hair memory in the '70s suburbs. Author tour

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