I ordered a new book last week – Ron Thomas’ I Want to Walk You Home.
Ron was already in our class at St. Joe’s when I entered third high in 1957, and he stayed until the end of that year. I didn’t know him well, since we were both fairly shy, on rival teams, and inhabited different alphabetical neighborhoods in the study hall; but I got re-acquainted with him last year through Semnet, and discovered that he is an accomplished poet, and that he’d just finished a novel set in the minor seminary.
When his freshly published paperback arrived from Amazon a few days ago, I read the first few pages and was immediately captivated by it. So much so, that I found myself spontaneously performing the Cornelius Burns Baptismal Rite on his book.
(In my sophomore year at Marin Catholic, I had the newly-ordained Cornelius Burns as my English teacher and, subsequently, my mentor. “Books are the most precious friends we have,” he would pronounce in his melodious lilt. “You need to treat them with utmost respect.” To make his point, he took out a new book, laid it on his desk, and gingerly opened the front cover, massaging it along the spine with his fingers so that the glue would yield, allowing it to move with maximum flexibility. Then he did the same to the back cover, gently extending its range of motion. Ten pages at a time, he repeated the process, back and forth, front and back, until the entire book was supple and limber, ready to be penetrated by its ardent reader.)
That’s what I did to Ron’s book, probably because, after the first paragraph, I had a sense that this was a tale that might limber up my own spine, might soften the glue that had hardened in me long ago, even before I entered St. Joseph’s:
A lawn runs like a river through scattered blue cedars. On the grounds of St. Jerome’s seminary, little islets of white daisies dot sunny spots on the grass. I walk down a long drive toward an unruly snarl of vines like scrambled barbed wire. That’s where a girl about my age is picking blackberries.
That, I realize, was the fantasy we all had in the seminary, though in my tightly-corseted mind, it only emerged as a blurry outline of an indistinct temptation that I had attempted to slaughter in infancy. Only now, in my 77th year, can I let that fantasy in and fully appreciate its playful implications, not only for then, but for now.
The girl’s name is Alice Derry, and she lives a few houses down the road from the seminary. She’s saucy and irreverent, the perfect foil for a buttoned-down seminarian like Raymond Sheets. She gets into his brain, and he finds himself thinking about her all the time - during Mass, meditation, meals, study hall. He runs into her one Thursday in Loyola Corners and takes an illicit ride on her motorcycle. During Christmas vacation, he and two other classmates from San Francisco drive down to her house on New Year’s Eve and end up partying with her and a friend. Back at the seminary, he’s convinced he’s in a state of mortal sin, despite assurances from his insightful confessor.
The whole tale will vibrate your seminary memories - everything from the hovering guilt, to the campus bonfires, to the priests named Beansy and Cat. You will resonate with the San Francisco references - Mel’s Drive-in, Playland at the Beach, St. Francis Woods; and with the lyrics from Fats Domino, Richie Valens and the Skyliners. And then there’s the fact that Raymond’s best friend’s father is an alcoholic cop, and his mother a long-suffering saint . . . it’s all very familiar ground, covered by an exceptional writer with a clear memory and a vivid imagination.
I Want to Walk You Home would never have been approved by the Reverend Librarian at St. Joseph’s. For that reason alone, I think you’ll enjoy it.