The Variations: A Novel

The Variations: A Novel

by John Donatich

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A compelling sympathy of the faiths that fill the gap between who we set out to be and who we ultimately become

A powerful debut novel about a priest who has lost his church, his mentor, and, most upsetting, his ability to pray. How can Father Dominic protect or guide his parish when everything he loves falls away? How can he counsel Dolores, a troubled


A compelling sympathy of the faiths that fill the gap between who we set out to be and who we ultimately become

A powerful debut novel about a priest who has lost his church, his mentor, and, most upsetting, his ability to pray. How can Father Dominic protect or guide his parish when everything he loves falls away? How can he counsel Dolores, a troubled teenager prone to emotional panic and spiritual monomania? Or James, a promising African American pianist, struggling to realize his artistic ambitions by bringing his own voice to a piece that has been played by the world's most brilliant pianists, Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Into this malaise comes Andrea, a sophisticated New York editor attracted at first by Dom's blog and then by the man himself. Dom's journey from the cloth into the secular world will offer carnal knowledge, but also something deeper, a more resistant knowledge as life fails to offer happiness or redemption. In prose both searching and muscular, John Donatich's The Variations has located the right metaphor for our spiritual crisis in this story of one man's spiritual disillusion and ache for self-knowledge.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Father Dominic is about to lose his vocation; Andrea, a sharply honed editor from New York, gets interested in him after reading his blog. Neither a raucous take on a priest going secular or a grim stab at religion (at least at first glance), this promises to be a thoughtful read. A debut from the director of Yale University Press; watch.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.68(w) x 8.33(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Variations

A Novel

By John Donatich

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2012 John Donatich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9528-9


It was when driving the parish car that Dominic felt most secular. He was just a guy in a Mercury Sable, driving to and from work, doing errands; he could be anyone else on wheels, someone hard to track. Even though the old Sable was nearly twelve years old, it clocked only 47,253 miles on its odometer and was more likely to die of old age than experience.

He had taken the last two stop signs on a roll. Since he was driving with a suspended license, Father Dominic opened the gate and pulled into the church parking lot with a bad conscience, into the vast emptiness of a weekday morning.

Pulling the keys out of the ignition quieted the dinging in the dashboard. The alarm had rung his anxiety to attention as he sat in the car surveying the church property. The gutters leaked, and the asbestos-lined basement flooded after every rain. The boiler surely would not last the winter. The locks didn't secure, and it was only after they had reported the theft of a gold-plated chalice to the Falcones, the local organized "family," that the break-ins ceased. Mice or something bigger worried the walls of the rectory. Empty bottles of beer and cheap whiskey littered the corners of the lot; Dominic turned out early every Sunday morning to clear them before Mass. How he hated the clink of glass against glass in the garbage bag, hollow and carnal like a laugh track.

Now in its fifth decade of urban renewal, New Haven was just a bunch of little neighborhoods struggling to assert their integrity. Dom liked the tired maturity of the city's faith—the kind that knew better than to reach a conclusion, that believes despite the contrary evidence, despite the improbability of redemption. His church was needed here.

Dominic packed up his portable "death kit"—that little pouch of blessed oils, holy water, a stole and his battered little green book, Pastoral Care of the Sick—that he had used in administering Extreme Unction, the last rites, to Father Carl. He leaned over to jam the kit into his glove compartment when in the rearview mirror he saw a flash of movement, a white T- shirt behind a tree. He froze as the girl ran to the next tree—barely a girl, really, a sliver of agitation. Dolores.

Dom had known her since she was a kid in the parochial school—when there still was a school. It was Father Carl who had had the primary relationship with her. They had scheduled spiritual counseling every Thursday night at 6:30 right after the evening Mass, but it was always a gamble whether the girl would show or not.

"One of God's special cases, given us to know Him better," Father Carl had winked, which, again, had confused the younger priest. Dolores was an insistent but erratic presence; she would come to the church every day for a period but then disappear for months only to wind up calling Father Carl at the rectory in a panic in the middle of the night. Then the pattern would repeat. Dom tried to be patient with the girl, but he worried about the toll she took on the ailing older priest. She showed up rarely when expected and often when inconvenient. If her timing was unpredictable, she was even harder to place physically. During his weekly visits to Dolores's housebound mother he barely saw any sign of the daughter in the apartment. Dominic even wondered whether she lived half the time out on the street. The truant officer, social worker and welfare agent had filed their final reports and were done with her. The high school and the state had virtually given up on her. She had turned to the Church in the end.

Father Carl had really been her last lifeline, and when he got sick Dom began to see more of her. She ran errands for the elder priest, made round-trips to the post office and drugstore, brought him books from the library and, then, audiotapes when he grew too weak to read. He began to show up at morning Mass in polished shoes. She was desperate to be of use to him, although Dom had always found her to be in the way.

"She must be wearing you out; you need your rest," Dom warned Father Carl.

"What I need is a life I can still help," he replied.

Dominic felt Dolores competing for the priest's affection. A few months ago, in what would turn out to be Father Carl's final public sermon, she had scooped Dom by arriving at the church early, shoving him aside in order to seize control of the wheelchair. She would be the one who wheeled Father Carl down the aisle to the altar, glowering at the congregants in the pews, daring them to look directly at their frail pastor with anything but reverence. But now that the old priest had died, would she be turning to him for counsel? The thought exhausted him.

Wincing at the grunting door (he half expected it to fall off completely any day now), Dominic made hard work of gathering himself out of the car. Glancing at the bumper, he confirmed that he had swiped the mailbox backing into that tight spot. He bent down pretending to examine the scratch while getting a peripheral glimpse of the tree she hid behind. She was so skinny a birch could manage it. He stood up, put his hands on his hips, stared directly at where he thought she would be and walked toward the line of trees at the edge of the lot.

"Hello?" he cried out.

There was no answer. Dom heard the steady roar of the Interstate beyond the concrete barrier at the edge of the shallow woods. His next call was lost in the rumble of a passing truck.

"Is that you, Dolores?" he asked and stepped over the curb onto the soft pile of pine needles. The damp of the earth seeped through the hole in his left shoe he hadn't gotten around to mending.

"What, no coat? Aren't you cold? Come into the rectory and warm up."

"You can hear me, but you can't see me."

"Why is that? Are you invisible?"

"Might as well be."

"Come in; it's cold out. Or I can drive you home."

"Oh no, none of that."

"None of what?"

"Whatever. Sooo, how is he?"

Dom sighed. Would this girl be the first he told? "He's with God now."

Dolores stepped out from behind the tree. He barely recognized her. Long stringy hair, not so much unwashed as unclean. Untreated acne on her forehead. Teenage skinny, probably too skinny. Her very posture was angular and aggressive, vaguely contentious. She was the age at which physiology was temperament. Or was it something more? She seemed somehow hurt.

Dominic cleared his throat. "I'm very sorry. I know how you loved him."

"How do you know that?"

"Well, because I know how he loved you."

He watched the bones of her face fold into an ache; then she turned and ran across the parking lot. He called after her.

As he watched her race down the street, he felt that familiar discomfort he hated in himself: the capacity for pity. He had been prone to it his whole life but had grown to mistrust it utterly; it was feminine and sentimental. It turned on him like heartburn. He had hidden within it, and he had mistaken it for kindness.

* * *

Climbing the narrow stairs off the kitchen, Dominic balanced a hot cup of tea on his briefcase; he had forfeited his usual dash of brandy. The hot water steamed in the cool hallway. Much of the rectory had been shut down to save on heating; now it would be kept just warm enough for him.

Upstairs in the library, Dom logged on to his blog. With naive goodwill, he had recently written an essay arguing for the preservation of Our Lady of Fatima Church, which the archdiocese had recently named among the several dozen churches likely to close. There had been a sudden if modest outcry within the parish. The friends of the church were supportive, holding midnight candlelight vigils and prayer sessions. A petition was drawn and signed by the very people who never bothered coming to Mass.

Parishioners came to him with visions. A widow claimed she could suddenly see a teardrop form in the corner of the eye of the marble statue of the Virgin, only it's a blemish in the stone that Dom knows has always been there. He did not disabuse the woman, though, and stayed off the record while she talked to the newspapers. None followed up on her claim in print, thank God. He was glad they didn't take her seriously; the world was right to be suspicious about these sightings: Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, Queens, and hundreds of others. He mistrusted any literalizing of the mysteries.

It was on the Internet, though, that Dom got his first real idea of how people outside the parish felt about the church and its future. There would be nothing of the Bing Crosby sort of priest for Dom, drawing strength from the supportive folk of the parish. Daily doses of anonymous venom spat through the Web and landed on his blog. Over the last dozen months or so, he had posted his sermons, editorials, daily meditations, personal essays to a small but growing and appreciative audience. His blog had even been linked to several national sites; he had become a kind of go-to guy for reporters watching contemporary Catholicism. His Facebook account collected hundreds of friends, while his social life added none. Most of his readers were either orthodox Catholics looking for blessings or those curious few who came to find out what the fuss was—those agnostics who didn't necessarily believe in the Deity but held on to "their own personal idea of God." As if the purpose of being a god was to be conjured up in the imaginations of those who needed Him.

But it wasn't until the rumors about the closings went public that he got the full blast of those who did not come with sympathy.

Comment #1022 by jimmyfox on November 25 at 7:14 p.m.

Nobody wants you. Just shut it down. Why would you ask us to hold out against all that gives us a little pleasure in this crappy world? No sex, no drugs. Puhleeeeze!

Comment #1023 by indiparent on November 25 at 7:39 p.m.

I agree. Go to hell! You churches are just recruitment centers for innocent children to be sodomized by the priests anyway. What are you but safe havens for pedophiles. Read a newspaper, people. Get out of town and be in a hurry, Our Lady of Flatulence. God riddance (pun intended).

Comment #1024 by holyjizz on November 26 at 12:12 a.m.

Me again, Father. Let me ask you about that little girl who got shot in Columbine, the one the book got written about, She Said Yes. That's what the newspapers reported the girl said when asked if she believed in Jesus—with a gun to her head. Turns out the whole thing was a sham. It's more like She Shit Herself. That's the humanity of the situation. Am I right, Father?

Let's talk turkey, Padre. When it comes to religion, we're supposed to respect and honor your right to preach superstition and ancient taboos that we wouldn't allow anyone else to get away with. So—we've gotten rid of slavery, cannibalism, the fucking stoning of whores—you name it, the list goes on and on. But in the case of religion, we have to simply annihilate the entire rational evolution of our minds and bow our heads at the effort?

Face it, Father. The fight's over. The world is better off for moving on. The New Atheism: Bring it on.

Dominic typed in a response:

I recognize a definite zealotry to your atheism. Your attack on religion is not only ideological, it's downright evangelical! It's almost as if your ambition doesn't just want to destroy religion; you want to replace it.

Your certitude astonishes me. I've heard all of it before: that our vision of God is a defense system against the fear of the unknown, a fantasy of anthropomorphic grandiosity, a cognitive response to some ancient offending or frightening mental stimuli. I've heard this all before from social psychology, social-exchange theory, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, cognitive science, members of whom inform us that human instinct and intuition are evidence of adaptive behavior, learned fitness, market motives, encoded survival techniques. To give no credence to the wild and unknowable side of consciousness—how small that must feel.

Faith is that willful belief in what is not possible, or, as Wallace Stevens put it:

—the nicer knowledge of belief

That what it believes in is not true.

Your legitimate gripe is actually with the Church, which really in the end is nothing more than the social management of the wildness of spirit institutionalized within religion. More than that, it's also the acceptable mechanism for people to safely explore that wildness. They won't like that I write this, but they should realize it's their greatest asset.

Why would anyone not want a greater, more ambitious idea of the human soul—one that can believe in something beyond what it can conceive of? Why wouldn't you cultivate the kind of soul that is able to willfully experience beyond the rational mind and material world, even if illusory? Isn't that in itself a kind of joy?

Rather than post, Dominic highlighted and then deleted the response. He knew that he would never win or lose that argument; it would just devolve into name- calling. He would be just another priest arguing with another atheist: "But you're guilty of the same thing you accuse me of; you are trapped within the structural dynamics of your own prejudices." They would get into that "I know that you know that I know that you know" game, like a bad high. Better to resist the easy grooves of careless thinking online: all these people who just wanted to come lift a leg and pee in his yard. Instead, he simply wrote and sent through the line:

I quote: "To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter."—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Funny point in our history, isn't it, for a priest to be attacked like a heretic.

* * *

"Whatever you say, say nothing."

Father Carl's last words haunted him. It was as if the old priest had passed invisibly inside the younger, but instead of being burdened Dom felt curiously lighter, happier and excited even—as if they were road buddies off together on some caper.

Whatever you say, say nothing. In the sacrament of Extreme Unction, Dominic had touched with the consecrated oil the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the lips of the old priest but then lingered, rubbing the oil into the hands. How soft, still, cool and so white: between flesh and marble, man and monument. Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou has committed by walking, Dominic said, touching the feet of Father Carl. A douse of holy water, a dose of morphine. Father Carl was nothing but a man and barely that. What was it that Dominic listened for in the sound of the breath held in that grim line of the lips, life or death? And then nothing. Withheld. He had counted slowly and at the twenty-third beat, he listened to the rattle in the man's chest. How many deaths had he witnessed? At what point had they become—no, never routine—but the opposite of something happening?

Whatever you say, say nothing.

The phrase would stick. Even with his cheeks sunken, his bulk weightless on the bed, humming to stay just a little alive, that motherless child, that childless man made the effort to be priestly, significant in his last words, as if they might become famous last words. But who remembers a dead priest?

Holding the hand a bit longer, Dominic had listened for the warmth to cool; he smelled the rank from under the sheets as the old man's bowels loosened. He turned his head away. Is this how a soul at death, at the pearly gates themselves, must look back and first see itself? Soiled and still. How big and true little words pretended to be. Dead. God.

Dom laid the hands across the chest. Old tools in a junk shop. He closed the priest's lids over his eyes. Why did people in the movies always die with their eyes closed? Dom said a final prayer, struggling to let the words settle into meaning; he leaned into their rhythm and fought the hunch that it might just be his own last sincere prayer. He kissed the waxy forehead. He thumbed the jaw to shut the gape of the mouth. Agape. Say nothing. Little Lamb. Lamb of God. Who made thee?

There was much to do. Arrange for the transport of the body from the hospital to the funeral home. But, in fact, many of the details—the choice of coffin, the parish cemetery lot, even the list of eulogists—had been prearranged by Father Carl, who was proud of the fact that he had exacted an "ecumenical discount" from the undertaker. After all the referrals he had given? Father Carl's two brothers were on call, and Dom knew that the answering machine blinking red in the vestibule signaled a neglected call from the elder checking up on things. None of it should wait, really. Nevertheless, he wanted to drift quietly for a while in the depressurized air of the emptying rectory. Weightless and suggestible as a ghost, he wondered the places he might go, the things he might see, might hear. From his earliest awareness, Dominic knew he was given to a mystifying tendency, prone to imagining things around him deeper and more beautiful than perhaps they really were—or had a right to be.


Excerpted from The Variations by John Donatich. Copyright © 2012 John Donatich. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Donatich is the director of the Yale University Press. His essays and occasional pieces have appeared in Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly. The Variations is his first novel.

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