In Requiem, Mass. a master storyteller weaves his spell.
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

Each of us has one—a friend who tells such a vivid and inviting story that the narrator and the telling are characters in themselves, and, as if just by listening, we, too, are woven into the passions and losses of the characters. Even as our friend is wild-eyed, spinning deeper and deeper into the story, abandoning now the “facts” and digging into some essential truths about the story and its characters, as detail gives way to hyperbole and our credulity is strained, we keep listening. It’s not indulgence—we know others whose stories are long and involved (but with them we yawn and stretch and think about laundry and e-mail). With our storytelling friend, our wild, howling, tempest of a friend, we are rapt. 
One imagines a hazy Florida night, the air thick with bugs, ice clinking and settling in our glasses, the light changing into shades of mauve. John Dufresne’s voice rises over the din of insects and cuts through the suffocating heat. He begins quietly, starting with one protagonist, stripping him away, and bringing in a new one, a first-person narrator that either is Dufresne or a fictionalized Dufresne. In speaking to us, he toys with fact and fiction. Confuses narrator and author. At the end of our wondering which is which—novel that is memoir or fictionalized memoir?—we cease to care. We are too entertained by the warmth and strangeness of his characters and the humor and power with which he is telling the story. 
And those characters. Requiem, Mass. is full of them. Dozens of them, each inhabiting a life and a universe, some glowing and flaming out within a few pages, and some moving through the story with us. Some are oddballs, some starkly sane, some are genuinely mentally ill. And it’s here that Dufresne shows his power—he can write these humorous and wild characters with such warmth and with such a total lack of condescension. They elicit more empathy than ridicule, more delight than horror. Serving as more than just “color,” they become the soul and wit of the story—worthy vehicles for this looping and poetic novel. 
The central force of the novel is Dufresne’s narrator, who observes and participates, reflects and responds. As those insects buzz around us in the Florida heat, the ice now melted in our glasses, he is at times quiet and gentle in his requiem, and other times passionate and howling: “Any meaning is better than none. Ask any Catholic or Methodist or Hutterite or Hmong. You believe in a God who, in his exquisite loneliness, created the universe and little you. Or you believe that we, in our terrifying loneliness, created God. Doesn’t matter which. Ask any Vietnamese child kneeling in the mud, praying, choking on her tears, feeling the hot muzzle of an M16 at the nape of her neck, hearing the screams of her grandparents, inhaling the sting of smoke and cordite, know that this soldier here behind you dear, is about to make his own meaning by firing a burst of bullets through your head. At that moment there is no arrow of time for you, there is no there, no then. There is only this singularity, this Planck instant, this big bang. At that moment you are borrowing energy against time and shaping your brief life into a quantum of meaning.”
Dufresne’s voice is, at times, breathless, leaping from narrative to philosophical rumination and then back to the lives of his characters within a few sentences: “You can be older than you are in your memory. You can remember the future—you and Tommy Sands at your oldest daughter’s Vegas wedding—because when you take your last breath, you realize—and this realization is all the heaven you get—you realize, Caeli said, that everything that ever happened, happened in an instant—she snapped her fingers—and not just what happened in your own little life, but the entire beginning, middle, and end of existence, of the universe, the whole megillah. Time, she said, we made it up. Like we made up God. We needed God because we have to have someone to talk to when we’re alone and desperate.”
There is, among his oddballs and drifters, his absentee fathers and his crazy uncles, a tremendous depth, as he probes the absurd to find the profundity at the center. And this is what makes Requiem, Mass. more than just a romp. In his depiction of a family trying not to shatter, Dufresne creates a resonate narrative of what holds families, friends, and acquaintances together, how we create memories and stories, and how our memories and stories create us. 

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary.

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Requiem, Mass.

John Dufresne

2008, Norton

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