A man cannot cast aside his childhood, though he run from it as he would the devil. He may make of it a burden under which to stumble and fall, or a shield to hide behind, or he may make of it a tool. ----Ann Fairbairn (pseudonym Dorothy Tait), FIVE SMOOTH STONES
When trying to compose my thoughts about the tiny hero in Mykola Dementiuk’s novel, Holy Communion, the above quote seemed to be hand-crafted for him. And the power of Tait’s words nearly made me cry, bringing the initial impact of the book back to me.
Holy Communion is not a book you grab in the airport gift shop and breeze through between Houston and Atlanta. For me, the novel had to be read in increments and—to be truthful—took me quite a while to finish. Not because it wasn’t that good, but because it WAS that good. It was powerful. A gritty, sweet, heart-wrenching, poignant dose of, as the blurb says, the human condition.
I’ve tried to think of an adequate description for the narrative voice in this novel, and the only thing that comes to my mind—and I hope you’ll understand what I mean when I say it—is that Mykola Dementiuk writes in Technicolor with Michelangelo brushstrokes tossed in for pure artistry. For this Texas gal who swears she was a New Yorker in another life, the imagery of the New York streets, the shops, the traffic, the people, the smells, the crummy apartments and stoops, the whole scene, was painted so vividly by the author that I saw the bustling city as clearly as he lived it. But the hero. The little fellow I fell for. The diminutive kid I wanted to take home with me, to hug, to shelter. Let me tell you about him.
I don’t know his name. He is only called ‘the boy’. He’s seven years old, and it’s the week of his Holy Communion with the Catholic Church. The tyke is abused, both physically and emotionally, by his alcoholic father, his bullying baby-sitters, and a pedophile comic book shop owner. The boy is a bed wetter and often ‘makes in his pants’ during the day, much to his own mortification and the harsh disapproval of the nuns at school.
Dementiuk somehow takes the reader’s hand and guides them into the head of this child in a way I can’t say I’ve ever seen an author do with main character this young. And that was what endeared me to ‘the boy’. Dementiuk dragged me into this child’s mind so close, so personal, that I WAS the boy. I lived in constant terror of the upcoming Holy Communion, convinced my sins were sending me straight to hell. I was tiny and at the mercy of tired, cross, cruel nuns. I was molested by the pedophile in the comic book store. I was teased mercilessly by my godmother’s daughters who figured a child was nothing more than a doll to play with and torture.
The shocking part of this deep insight into the boy’s psyche was that, in a rare but crystal clear revelation—because I lived the horror through HIS intensely personal and baby-like vision, not my own adult eyes—I saw with great sadness but understanding, how even sick and misguided attention was just that to this little victim—attention.
One of the most important facets of this book, to me, was the fact that we can and indeed DO experience physical and emotional sensations at a young age, long before society has had a chance to hand out the checklist of what’s right and what’s wrong.
In a technique that impressed me—which I thought was genius—Dementiuk chose to assign no names to any of the characters. They were merely the nuns, the priests, the mother, the father, the old bald man in the comic book store. That anonymity somehow put me in the story as the character, right in the middle of the child’s world. And, oddly, gave it a touch bit of a make-believe aura, in which I could pretend—if the reality of it all was too harsh—that it was not real.
Dementiuk said of Holy Communion: The reality of Holy Communion tormented me for many, many years even before I became a writer. I was just too young to have experienced those religious questions, I thought, and forebodings in my mind but truth to tell I certainly wasn't. I've always been tormented by Christianity forcing me to look upon the good and bad aspects of my daily life and in this way I always went against the norm. I became a rebel pretty early, after all, I had confronted God and found that God to be lacking…or at least that’s what I imagined. After a lifetime of screwing and drinking, with all sorts of drug taking, I found myself defeated with no place left to turn except inwards, into myself. I began, “Screams stirred him. He listened and drifted.” And wrote and wrote. I was ready to look at my past and the world opened up and I never looked back.
Holy Communion was the Lambda Literary Awards Winner 2009/Bisexual Fiction.
As I said, this is no breezy read. But it is a commanding read, in a voice which combines eloquence and urban grit to perfection. It is a most unusual look into the deepest, most private thoughts of a child in such detail and soul that could only have been penned by the man who lived it.
And I WILL tell you this. The ending made me smile. The tyke’s quite a little fighter.