I liked Frank right off. He reminded me of my uncles and cousins, in short many of the Portuguese men in my family. And I’d heard he wrote a book called “Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death”, which sounded like a party to me. They had it in the school’s book store so I grabbed it. I have been devoted to his work ever since.
Frank’s new novel, Stealing Fatima, is truly a brilliant and compelling read. Published through Counterpoint Press, it is a must read. Excellent reviews of the book can be found at Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly with more coming out seemingly every day. And we hope you’ll enjoy the review our fiction Editor, Natalie Seabolt Dobson, has written.
Many people have written about Frank’s work but I believe Mary Oliver hit it on the head when she wrote, “Frank Gaspar’s poems are agile and forceful, their narratives clear and absorbing. In them he is speaking to the reader—but also to himself, or perhaps to some hazy divinity, or to the blue sky. I felt in his voice no attempt to persuade me of anything. I felt only the abiding imperative to get it right. Which is, of course, what real writing is all about.”
It is our complete honor, privilege, and thrill to bring you Frank X. Gaspar as our Featured Artist of the Month.
Frank Xavier Gaspar (born 1946) is an American poet, novelist and professor. His most recent novel is Stealing Fatima (Counterpoint press, December, 2009). His most recent collection of poetry, Night of a Thousand Blossoms (Alice James Books, 2004) was one of 12 books honored as the "Best Poetry of 2004" by Library Journal.
Gaspar's first four books all won awards: his first collection of poetry, The Holyoke, won the 1988 Morse Poetry Prize (selected by Mary Oliver); Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death won the 1994 Anhinga Prize for Poetry (selected by Joy Harjo); A Field Guide to the Heavens won the 1999 Brittingham Prize in Poetry (selected by Robert Bly); and his novel, Leaving Pico, won the Barnes & Noble Discovery Award. He has published poems in numerous journals and magazines, including Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and Gettysburg Review. His poetry has been anthologized in Best American Poetry 1996 and 2000. He has also won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and three Pushcart Prizes.
Born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Gaspar served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. He earned an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. He teaches at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.
Excerpt from Stealing Fatima, by Frank X. Gaspar
A high wind, a grand wind, blew in from the choppy sea on the night Sarafino Pomba returned from the dead. Father Manuel Furtado would mention the wind in his ledgers, which he kept faithfully and obsessively, writing in them upstairs in the spare cell of his study during the late, black hours, when all the houses on the lane were dark and the church locked and the rectory silent save for the small ticks and creaking of the building’s ancient wood. Early that evening the priest finished his supper in the little kitchen, cleaned his dishes and put them away in the cupboard, tidied the room, and went out to the parlor to sit in the wooden rocker before the window. He opened the window a crack just to feel the fresh air on his face, and he kept the room in darkness, the better to see outside. He was pleased at what he observed. Small strings and clusters of town kids roamed along Church Street. Today was the Vigil of Saints—All Hallows Eve—and the children were trick-or-treating their way up to the Halloween party in the Parish Hall, behind the church.
The center of town would be starting to bustle already along Front Street—a great carnival for the tourists and other people from away—elaborate costumes and parties, shows in the noisy bars and bright cabarets, stunning drag queens parading in faultless riots of color—but here, just a few lanes back from the waterfront, a different town moved among smaller, quieter streets. The clear stars of fall had risen, and the gusting wind brought with it a mild chill and a brisk dampness from the ocean. The old teardropped streetlamps cast their grainy light along the hedges and fences, and the windows of the narrow houses shone white and yellow, and the porches and steps were lit, some with carved pumpkins whose candles flickered madly behind their slitted eyes and lipless grins with each flurry of the freshening wind. Father Furtado saw one or two skeletons or ghosts among the smaller children, but most of the costumes now seemed to come from popular movies or videos, and the priest watched a random parade of serial killers with claw hands and ruined faces, outer-space creatures, galactic warriors, sometimes a fancy pirate, once in a while a ray-gun princess. A few pre-teens walked along with just a dollop of grease paint on their faces—more likely some mother’s makeup—and wearing that new, safe, reflective clothing as they rapped on doors carrying pillow-cases for sacks, or orange-and black store-bought bags and plastic jack o’lantern buckets. But no one knocked at the rectory. Everyone knew that was not to be done and that there would treats and gifts in the parish hall.
The priest looked on until the little street slowly cleared of travelers, and then he waited about thirty minutes before walking out the rectory’s back door and crossing the parking lot to the party. It was merely an appearance. The priest was not expected to linger at such parties. But he circulated and spoke to everyone, kids and parents. Not as many as in the old days when he himself was a child here in the town, but there were fewer families now, and he was pleased at the turnout. Indeed, since he had come back to take over the Parish of Our Lady of Fatima, attendance at everything was up, and the town seemed to be pulling together again. It was what he had been sent to do. And now that Idalina Horta had left town—fled, the priest might say—Mariah Grey had stepped in and organized a splendid party. It was the first such festa in his memory that either Mrs. Horta or his own mother did not personally direct. He took things in quickly. He did not want to appear to be supervising. Mariah had hung the hall with orange and black crepe, and she and her party committee had decorated the walls and tables with bouquets of helium balloons and string-and-cotton spider-webs. Suspended from the center of the hall’s ceiling hung an enormous piñata, a paper-Mache jack o’lantern head with a goofy grin and with cartoon band-aides patched all over the sides of its face. It was one of Winslow’s creations—the priest had no doubt about this. Its eyes were crossed—one had a black circle under it—and sticking out from the head, on thin, transparent wires, were little curlicues, spirals and comic-book stars. The effect was that the head was already punch-drunk from being whacked with the pinata-stick and was seeing these loopy things. But Winslow—clearly in a prank cooked up by the committee, —had used her artistic touch to shape the eyes, the nose, the long mouth—even the hint of an ecclesiastical collar—so that there was no doubt that this paper pumpkin head was meant to resemble Father Manny himself. He could only wonder at what sort of prizes Winslow had stuffed inside the thing. But he would not hang around to see himself split open.
Beneath the piñata stood long bright tables—they would have to be moved later when game began—and on them sat bowls of punch and beside them home-made congo-bars stacked on paper plates, and trays of trutas, suspiros, and malasadas from Lucia Bragaís Portuguese Bakery. Furtado had hoped to see his sister at the festa. She worked at Bragaís bakery. She was going to bring the trays of sweets up to the hall, but she had called him earlier that afternoon to tell him that Tommy was in from fishing, and she wouldn’t be there. She said someone else on the committee—it was either Maureen Avellar or Joanna Nunes—would stop by the bakery and pick everything up. There was an off-putting tone in her voice—something pinched and short—breathless, almost. He didn’t ask about it. He didn’t want to open up any kind of discussion of her woes and troubles at that moment. And anyway there was nothing unusual about Tom coming in early. All the boats would have motored in that afternoon ahead of the blow that was building up.
He took another circuit around the hall. He strolled, he joked with some of the kids. He noticed that Mariah also had seen to it that the younger ones got a bag of candies and finger-rosaries and little blue plastic miraculous medals with silver-looking chains. Older kids received small, abbreviated missals, all of which Mariah had bought on the Internet at half the price they would have cost through the nearest Catholic supply outlet, all the way off the Cape, up in Calumet. Furtado watched her now, how she stayed in the background, how she was letting the mothers and grandmothers carry things forward, as they always had done for Mrs. Horta. A very few of the mothers were not taking well to Mariah, but most were warm and sociable, laughing with her, even hugging. When she first joined the church and then began to volunteer so much time and energy, the priest didn’t have a complete picture of what she was capable of. He hadn’t understood her right away. But it didn’t take long before he saw that she was someone he needed, that she was just the sort of person to help him with his plans for the parish. She quickly became more and more important in the daily business of running the church. And as he looked back on it, it was inevitable that she and Mrs. Horta would clash. Perhaps if he had paid more attention, if he had been able to pull out of his own mind for a while he might have done something. He might have seen what was coming and found a way to cut short—even avoid—all the unpleasantness. It was absurd that so much had to come from something as seemingly trivial as the squirrels.
Idalina Horta had worked for the parish since Furtado was a small boy. She seemed to live beyond time. Furtado could not even picture her anymore as a younger woman, as though she had always been gray and short and somewhat hunched, even when she had been Father Santos’s parish secretary back when Furtado was growing up. For as long as she had worked for the parish, her husband Louis had been caretaker of the grounds and general handyman at the church. In his spare time he built and sold elaborate bird-feeders in all manner of design. Some were like little cottages with glass walls so a person could see the level of birdseed inside, and others were fancy cylinders or miniature fishing boats. One was even a model of the Pilgrim’s Tower, that commanding granite megalith that rose incongruously, nearly three hundred feet in the air from the town’s highest hill and that commemorated the town as the first landing place of the Pilgrims, though they found the land rough and bare and inhospitable and did not stay and settle there. Louis Horta, with his narrow, expressionless face and long thin hands, would walk the church grounds and make certain that the sparrows, finches, starlings, jays, catbirds and robins were all fed through their seasons. But also the squirrels came. He didn’t mind. He built more feeders and fed the squirrels, too.
This is what Mrs. Horta and Mariah had their final words about. Of course with Mariah volunteering so much at the rectory office, Mrs. Horta had already been feeling pushed out. Furtado should have seen it. He did see it. This was what he chastised himself for. He saw it but it did not register, and it did not register because, underneath it all, his will was working in a way he did not wish to acknowledge. He needed new energetic people to help with his plan for the parish, and he had a sense of having to carry the Hortas, who came with the church as a kind of legacy. They must have seen how he had been giving more and more of the important work to Mariah Grey and less to Mrs. Horta, who after all could not cope with the computer in the office, and who could offer him no real thinking in the directions he wanted to take the church. He hadn’t witnessed himself as being callous, but of course he should have moved far more gently. When he looked back on those days he saw all the small tensions, the little reverberations between the two women. He saw them clearly now, but at the time they were occurring they passed over him with no touch whatsoever. The argument—if that is what it was—started with apparent innocence. Mariah, who knew about such things, suggested that the Hortas were doing something harmful with the feeders. She talked about how the coyotes were already raiding the town for food, and she said that the feeders were pulling the squirrels from the woods, too. Turning them into pests. “They need to stay wild,” she had told them. But the Hortas were townspeople whose families had lived there since coming from the Azores in the Eighteen-eighties, and Mariah was one of the New People from away, and they did not appreciate what they felt was her superior attitude. Mariah at first thought their reaction to her had come from their disapproval of her living with Winslow, but the priest made it clear. The Hortas minded their own business about such things, as most of the townspeople had for generations. But they felt they were being bossed by an outsider, and that could be a problem. It was a delicate thing.
He and Mariah talked about it, and then Mariah decided she would ease things by trying to apologize. Furtado was not present for the final quarrel, so he did not witness its escalation. He could not imagine what either of them ended up saying to one another, but he knew that Mrs. Horta had become so agitated that she had to go home and lie down. “I tried to make it okay, Father Manny,” Mariah had told him. “I truly did,” She was shaken by the whole thing. And he had been clumsy when he called Idalina and tried to arbitrate. Finally she accused him of taking Mariahís part. “I know all about you, Manny Furtado,” she had said. “Don’t think people in this town don’t remember what you were like. Your father was a good man, God rest his soul, but you were always full of secrets and up to no good. Now you’re with the outsiders.” She sounded unhinged. The priest realized for the first time how much she had disliked him. How it must be that she had always disliked him, and he, so foolish, thought he moved in nothing but her good will and affection. It was said that Mrs. Horta and his mother—those pillars of the church—competed for everything and were rivals for his father’s hand when they were girls. They remained rivals and, losing out on Pai Furtado, Idalina prevailed at the church, becoming Father Santos’s mainstay back in the day. He noticed that in her screed, she did not mention his mother. Finally Furtado could do nothing with the old woman. She would not return to the church.
It was when Mrs. Horta lapsed into silence that she did her damage, for the priest did not hear from her again for weeks, during which she and Louis, with great dispatch, had sold their family house—grandly, he figured—into the booming real estate market, and she began calling the diocese in Calumet with her complaints and stories. This was the worst time. Something had given way in her. Not a snapping but a crumbling. Giving out like a kind of death. Such fear and confusion. She recanted later, after Father John Sweet had been sent from the archdiocese and an inquiry had begun. Sweet was a professional fixer, discreet and intense—an odd man—but not given to hasty judgments. Furtado would give him that much. Sweet had kept everything from the Parish Council except the barest generalities, which he and Furtado presented together, in case there was any talk going about. Furtado knew immediately who it had been when Father Sweet first came to tell him of the unidentified caller, about the troubling allegations to the diocese. The voice of an older woman.
The Hortas were already living off the Cape by then, but she was truly ashamed when confronted, and she explained the pressures. The New People. The town being unlivable. And Manny Furtado giving over to them. Opening the church to them. Pushing her aside. Belittling her in the town’s eyes. So she made the calls and told about the priest’s drinking and hoarding drugs. She had spied. She had snooped. The other part, the part she had made up, had not been just wrath or imagination, but something that had seized her as pure truth. Something that had been pointed to with hints and signs. Something that clicked into place like one of those exotic puzzle boxes, carved from dark wood, with sliding pieces and hidden latches. She believed it all utterly while she was saying it. She was not well. She had told them that the priest was interfering with young boys. Interfering was the word she had used...