The work

If my book-related blog “to-do” list had anything to do with a public library, I would owe some serious overdue fines by now.

The One-Man Book Club languishes; since the last post, none of the members are speaking to one another and we have about a half-dozen books that have gone un-discussed. The neglect has meant that the club has been slapped with an injuction: NO MORE NEW BOOKS can be cracked open until the situation is remedied. And that’s a problem, because, very soon, there are two books coming out any day — both written by friends — that I want to dive into the minute I get my dirty paws on a copy.

Which brings us to another book, by one of my oldest friends (oldest meaning longest, but also, indeed, oldest) … Bob Drinan: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

“S.J.” = Society of Jesus, aka The Jesuits. Both the author and Drinan are part of the order. Drinan, who died in 2007 at the age of the 86, served as a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts from 1970 to 1980. He ran on a platform to end the Vietnam War and stood for a raft of old-school, left-leaning causes that were once more clearly identified with the social-justice fixations of the post-Vatican II American church.

I know — a priest! In Congress!

How quickly we forget it ever happened, but as Schroth’s book thoroughly (quite thoroughly) describes, it not only happened, it also stirred a lots of thoughts that needed stirring, about the line between church and state and also about the line between one’s commitment to faith and to social ideals, and where those two are at odds. Drinan’s time in Congress included the Watergate hearings and his outrage over the bombings in Cambodia; he was passionate about gun control and U.S. criminal code; and, perhaps my favorite bit of trivia in the book, he campaigned for a system of national bike trails that would link the country.

Drinan is a difficult man to suss out; as a book subject, he is neither the most sympathetic nor legendary character and apparently not effusive with his personal feelings. Schroth’s biography is not necessarily ennobling, but it is human. It’s a frank and complete portrait —  one that was not easy to draw out of Drinan’s archives and the people who knew him.

Pope John Paul II put an official end to Drinan’s political career in 1980, decreeing (decree? I’m getting further away from the church all the time, especially church vocabulary) that ordained priests may not hold public office.

Don’t you know the whole thing came down to … yep, abortion rights. (Guess where Drinan stood. If you guessed pro-choice, then you might also be able to join me in remembering that brief time when modern-day, mainstream Catholics could be pro-choice and not constantly detect the stench of brimstone fuming up the room.) Long story short, one calling took precedence over another, and Drinan decided to remain in the priesthood. He spent the next 25 years teaching at Georgetown’s law school.

Which is where I took a cab last Wednesday afternoon, to hear Father Schroth talk about the book. I found him in a classroom on the lower level of the main building, speaking to a gathering of law students as well as some faculty and staff members who knew Drinan personally.

It’s been 21 years since I’ve sat in a classroom and listened to an hour of Ray Schroth, who is now in his mid-70s, lives in Manhattan and works at America magazine. Sneaking in five minutes late, taking a seat in the back and hearing his voice tell a story made it seem as if no time had passed at all.

To say Ray helped me as a writer and journalist is like saying wings help out with flight. At Loyola, I took four of his classes, which emphasized rigorously critical reading along with writing. His syllabi exposed me early on to great writers I might have otherwise taken forever to discover: Joan Didion, David Halberstam, Bruce Chatwin, Richard Ford, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Rebecca West, Neil Sheehan, to name a few. Two of his courses — Interpretive Writing in the fall of 1988 and Travel Writing in the spring of 1990 — turned out to be the closest experiences I had to the academic workshop setting, in which a small class of students were assigned essays and articles of some length. After first drafts, we gathered around a conference table to critique each others’ work. His classes were difficult but never dull. Our papers always came back with a lot of marks. Ray and I started out as mentor and student and over the years have become good friends.

I could go on about Ray Schroth, but the most important thing to me is that he has never stopped writing. (If Bob Drinan doesn’t sound like your thing, see if you can find a copy of Ray’s 1996 biography of the broadcaster Eric Sevareid.)

Ray and I went to dinner Wednesday night, like we always do, about once every year, when he comes to town or I go to New York; the conversation was about people we know and the past we share, but ultimately, as ever, it was about the work. Not “work” as in job, but work as in the work. What are you writing? What are you reading? What do you think?

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Want a free copy of Bob Drinan? I bought extras. Be the first to drop me a line at: hank [at symbol] hank’s-first-name-hank’s-last-name [dot] com and tell me why, and I’ll ship it out to you.

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