“The Long Black Line”
by John L’Heureux
from the May 21, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

A couple of years ago The New Yorker published John L’Heureux’s “Three Short Moments in a Long Life” (see our post here). That was the first time I’d ever read anything by L’Heureux; in fact, I don’t think I’d heard of him before despite the fact he is in his 80s and has been publishing since the 1960s. I really liked “Three Short Moments in a Long Life,” though there were some who did not care for it. I remember loving the direct, assured prose. I haven’t followed up and read more, though, so I’m glad to see this week we get another of his stories.

For much of his early adulthood, L’Heureux was a Jesuit priest. He left the priesthood in 1971 and married. It looks like this story takes us back to that prior life. Here is how it begins:

Finn said an awkward goodbye to his parents and watched them drive off in the new Buick they had bought in case he changed his mind. They were pleased, of course, at Finn’s decision to study for the priesthood, but they were wary, too. It was 1954, and priests were still thought to be holy, and Finn . . . well . . . Finn knew that he wasn’t holy, but during a retreat in college he had succumbed to a fit of piety and, dizzied by the idea of sacrifice, applied to join the Jesuits. They had put him through a series of interviews, and let him know that he seemed altogether too caught up in theatre, but in the end they had accepted him. So now here he was, almost a Jesuit, and this annoying Brother Reilly kept calling him Brother.

I’m looking forward to it, and anxious to see how the discussion below unfolds.

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By |2018-05-14T12:50:11-04:00May 14th, 2018|Categories: John L'Heureux, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |11 Comments


  1. William May 24, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    I’m surprised there are no omments. [my key for the third letter is not working.] I re-read this story and liked it. the narrative moves niely, lots of good dialogue. finn *is* theatrial and dramati. he doesn’t belong in the Jesuits. they want him to turn himself inside-out — stifle all natural impulses — and he an’t. the handling of his leaving — the role of father Larsen — is played out niely. and the ending is not romati — he knows he still has work to do.

  2. Greg May 24, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Love the no Cs William….what a trooper!

    (I will comment more on the weekend)

  3. Greg May 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    I agree William – The narrative does indeed move along nicely!

    Also, I enjoyed these pieces of writing:

    “Finn’s mind wandered. Was novitiate life making him infantile? Other men his age were fighting in Korea, and here he was on his knees, confessing to uncharitable thoughts. What ever happened to making his life a sacrifice?”

    “Visiting day had been a great success. Finn, however, felt sick. He had squandered what little progress he had made in the spiritual life. He had trivialized it. He had talked it away.”

    And lastly, I adored this part of the author interview that addressed the rejection scene:

    “I’m dealing here with the problem of a moral asceticism that is destructive of charity. The human need is real: in that moment, Brother Reilly is mentally—and perhaps spiritually—in extremis. He needs to be held. The fact that Finn perceives getting into bed with him as an occasion of sin and feels that holding Reilly is forbidden by his understanding of chastity—leads to a kind of sanctioned holiness wherein law overrules charity. This kind of decision has little to do with genuine holiness. It is, rather, sanctioned narcissism. Note: Finn, master of virtue in this scene, does not hesitate to steal one of Reilly’s Seconals.”

  4. William May 25, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Greg –

    good choice of quotes, esp the one from the interview. “sanctioned narcissism” — great phrase.

  5. mehbe June 2, 2018 at 10:27 am

    This story was right up my alley in various ways, one of which is an on-going curiosity about what life in religious orders might be like. An interesting aspect of this particular story was two of the most important characters were severely damaged by war. The main character was a bit damaged, too, although obliquely, through the guilt he felt for not being in the military.

    A heightened sense of Guilt (and responsibility) seems to me, as a non-Catholic, something like a defining characteristic of that religion; it has even entered popular culture as subject for humor. I liked this story for filling that in a bit for me, in a way that felt authentic.

    The ending didn’t quite work for me, especially after the wonderful two-part set piece of the encounter with Reilly followed by the consultation with Father Larsen, I got it that the author wanted to convey a somewhat ambiguous sense of freedom, relative to the life Finn was leaving, but, for some reason, the writing wasn’t as convincing as the rest of the story.

  6. Ken June 4, 2018 at 4:27 am

    I was very impressed with this–written with calm, quiet mastery and attentive to the complexities and ambiguities of this situation. How to achieve a state of peace or perfection when almost every feeling is wrong or sinful. Even achieving this rigorous state could create a sort of ecstasy itself suspicious. There’s always such pride in humility, or can be. I felt the ending was open and that was needed. A chapter has closed, there’s some brief release, but the character now will need to find another vocation.

  7. Melinda June 4, 2018 at 11:54 am

    “Grace is God’s free gift. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it. God gives it to whom he wills.”
    “What ever happened to making his life a sacrifice?”
    “Everything you’ve told me is about you. Your guilt. Your blame. Your pitiful erection.”
    “A man kills himself. A sick man. And you—in a monstrous act of proprietary guilt—you blame yourself.” Father Larsen lowered his voice, to a whisper. “You. You. You. It’s all about you. I really think you should go. I think you should leave now before it’s too late.”
    “You’ve turned it inside out. You’re supposed to be growing in Christ, and instead you’ve been growing in self-satisfaction.”
    “he (Finn) recognized that this freedom was only temporary, and that the words he shouted to the empty air would in time come back to him, and back, in a pale echo: Brother Reilly, Father Larsen. But for now life was good and Finn chose it.”

    This is a story about these particular men’s search for God’s grace. And their failure to grasp that gift. They were egocentric, unable to know themselves, and so unable to sacrifice themselves (disappear into the long black line) with joy. Their sacrifices were painstaking and guilt ridden, entrenched in human desire.
    John L’Heureux is a masterful writer and professor.

  8. Greg June 6, 2018 at 4:28 am

    Thanks Ken and Melinda for emphasizing the role of the ego in this story.

  9. Melinda June 6, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks, Greg!

  10. Madwomanintheattic June 7, 2018 at 9:10 am

    I thought this story was exquisitely paced, taking us on Finn’s journey with its moments of stillness and acceptance that made this reader, like Finn, breathe easier for a while. I also appreciated the information John L’Heureux provided about the institution and its demands. The title reminded me of all those “lines,’ the thin blue one, the original red one, the long blue one, all of which refer figuratively to the the line’s position as a bulwark between order and chaos. L’Heureux delineated Finn’s internal chaos with unusual delicacy, verisimilitude, and sympathy. Unfamiliar though the setting, I recognized the conflicts, and I really liked the story.

  11. Greg June 8, 2018 at 5:51 am

    Thanks Madwoman – I especially like your take on the Title!

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