Sister Patsy

Sister Patsy was published ten years ago. We had just moved to Stratford, where I made connection again with Virgil Burnett, artist, illustrator, writer and lecturer in Art History at the University of Waterloo. Burnett also published books, his own and those of a circle of friends, under the imprint Pasdeloup Press. He read the manuscript of Sister Patsy and proposed publishing it, with pen-and-ink illustrations, which he produced in no time at all, nearly fifty of them, most of which ended up in the book.

Virgil Burnett died last year and with him Pasdeloup Press. Besides which, the initial printing of Sister Patsy is about gone; Amazon seem only to offer second-hand copies. So I have decided to re-publish the text, without the illustrations, with our own Electric Ferry Press. It should be available in about a month from now.

Sister Patsy was my first novel, but it hardly counts as juvenilia. I was not young when I wrote it, and I had long written essays and short stories for publication. Nevertheless, after ten years everything should be subjected to scrutiny. I am surprised, when I have got down to it, at how little I want to change. (That I would not write the same book now is quite another matter.) Apart from weeding out colons and semicolons and regularising capitals, the text remains pretty much what it was.

Reading one’s own work after a long interval gives one a certain distance. It has become, in a sense, strange. I am moved and distracted, I speed up and slow down, as with any reading. Like any other reader, I puzzle over its meaning. Even where I may be presumed to have a privileged understanding, as with the roots of certain characters and situations in my own biography, these things are of little use or interest.

Sister Patsy recounts a single day and night in 1939 in the career of a girl evangelist now turned pastor of a Norwegian immigrant Pentecostal chapel in Brooklyn. She has a female companion and a female acolyte who plays the piano and on the day of the story is joined by a female singing group for special meetings. Sister Patsy has a nemesis, and encounters a visitor, an agent of transformation, as in a fairy-tale, both of these female. A disaster ensues and Sister Patsy’s career is finished. Much of the book is taken up with back-stories, anecdotes, stories characters themselves tell, sermons, elements of fantastic or surreal narration. Diction and idiom shift according to the speaker. One would be hard-pressed to call the effect realism, much less psychological realism. Hardly a novel at all.

I have come to think that the book is rather an example of Menippean satire or, in Northrop Frye’s useful term, an anatomy. Sister Patsy is, among other things, an anatomy of a vanished world of back-street chapel-folk, their institutions and passions, their apocalyptic hope, their boundless capacity for division and enmity. Virgil Burnett had an acute thing to say about it. He remarked, in the course of drawing the illustrations, on the numerous characters represented. Not just that there were many named minor characters, but that they were clustered in crowds, audiences, congregations. Choruses and witnesses.

That this is a type of satire not aimed at individuals but at a mentality or a mythologized group identity, and that, furthermore, such satire is not inconsistent with an affectionate backward glance, is lost on certain readers. I sent a copy of Sister Patsy when it first came out to a teacher of mine from the Bible school I attended as a youth, a man for whom I had, and retained, the utmost respect. He took it that Sister Patsy was a sort of religious charlatan. He wanted to assure me that not all evangelists were Sister Patsys! Another reader alleged that she flung the book across the room in disgust because of a “steamy Lesbian sex scene.” There isn’t one, of course, but then one is reminded of an aphorism of Lichtenberg’s: A book is a mirror: If an ape peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.