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Book Review: Vestments by John Reimringer

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This raw yet quiet novel is a stellar debut from St. Paul author John Reimringer. Vestments is a thoughtful book, but emotions run high in many places. It tackles an array of issues, all intertwined in the life of Jim Dressler. Those familiar with St. Paul will recognize not only landmarks, but history, attitudes and language.

Jim Dressler is a St. Paul kid who grew up Catholic, with an Irish mom and a German dad, which in his case meant fireworks. He had always loved the Church, and decides to become a priest. We follow this progression as he tells his sister the story. The question is, what happened? His dream is realized and then suddenly dashed in a moment of indiscretion, followed by treachery. During this one summer at home, the time of this story, he must face many demons, not the least of which is his volatile dad, plus a former girlfriend and his future with the Church and the realization that life can be patently unfair sometimes. Around the twin satellites of his brother’s wedding and his grandfather’s failing health, he must come to terms with family, with life and what makes it meaningful.

The characters in Jim’s – Father James’ – world are fully realized. I loved brash, smart Betty, the love of his life. We get to replay their high school years – that sad, mad, crazy time. I detested miserly, nosy Mrs. Gunther and could not decide whether to love or hate Joe Dressler, Jim’s dad. He is a sympathetic character in that he is rather pathetic. We all know someone like him.

This is a character-driven book. Expect a little drama, including violent sudden fistfights, but also a lot of introspection and thoughts on religion and life. Have patience and you will be richly rewarded.

All in all, Jim Dressler is a likeable, imperfect guy who seems to have a surprisingly well-adjusted grasp on life considering what he’s had to deal with growing up. And you don’t have to have grown up in St. Paul to appreciate this story. Though of course if you had, reading Vestments will evoke for you all the best and worst of St. Paul. The groups split into their own little factions, the deep-seated ties between families, the way families somehow always stick together. The taverns and bars, the old money and the new. The coming and going, the cemeteries, the churches.

Most of all, Reimringer nails the ending. Endings are difficult for many authors, in many books. But in this one, as it goes quietly along, it culminates in a resounding crescendo. In the last 20 pages of this book, I was crying; I was laughing; and the final paragraph took my breath away.

Vestments was a Publishers Weekly pick for Best Book of 2010, as well as winner of a Minnesota Book Award in the Novel & Short Story category (with some stiff competition, I must add). Also a Midwest Connections Pick (a program of the Midwest Booksellers Association) and a Milkweed Editions 2010 Editor’s Circle Selection.

(Read an interview with author John Reimringer, where he talks about the evolution of his first novel, writing, teaching and more.)

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