I picked up a copy of the 2007 Atlantic Monthly "Special Fiction Issue" last night because it contains new short stories from John Updike and Tobias Wolff and a feature written by Ann Patchett on the controversy about her work at Clemson University. But the issue also contains short stories from four other authors with whom I'm not particularly familiar and I started my magazine reading with the one by Marjorie Kemper called "Specific Gravity."
"Specific Gravity," although it is only seven magazine pages long, managed to immerse me completely into the lives and personalities of three priests who finished the seminary together "about 200 years ago." Father Grady, Father Tim's confessor, who has struggled to keep his vows of celibacy over the years, now finds both his patience and his faith tested by his assignment to minister to gang members in the projects. Father Barry, a passionate pro-life advocate, has become well known enough to have his own television show and only seems happy when he is front of an audience as passionate about the subject as he is.
But at the heart of the story is Father Tim, a good man with few financial skills who has managed to accumulate so much personal debt in his attempts to help his elderly parishioners and their families that he has bill collectors hounding and threatening him at all hours of the day and night. Facing personal bankruptcy and humiliation for himself and his beloved Church, Father Tim has to decide just exactly what he is willing to do to earn the money that he needs to save himself.
Marjorie Kemper has given me as much to think about in seven pages as some writers are able to leave me with in a 300-page novel. This is a remarkable story and it reminds me again just how good short fiction can be and how much emotion a skillful writer can pack into just a few pages.
Kemper has already won an O. Henry Prize for one of her stories (2003) and her second novel, Between the Devil and the Mississippi, has just been completed.