Culture Magazine

Word Play in Bullet Park

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
After reading Conroy's post about the mot juste, I decided to run a search on my Kindle for narthex, one of the words that Conroy identifies as being part of the specialized vocabulary used to describe castles and churches. My hope was to see it used in the context of a story, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it in Bullet Park, a novel by John Cheever. The passage in which it appears, quoted below, showcases Cheever's mastery. He often chooses not merely le mot juste, but le mot musical; when he writes of the "sound of the priest's voice in the vestarium," we hear the alliteration and marvel at Cheever's skill in using just the right word in just the right place. And by drawing from the "system of terms" appropriate to a church—pew, font, narthex, vestarium—Cheever places us inside of one:
This division of Nailles’s attention during worship had begun when, as a young boy, he had spent most of his time in church examining the forms captured in the grained-oak pews. In certain lights and frames of mind they seemed quite coherent. There was a charge of Mongol horsemen in the third pew on the right, next to the font. In the pew ahead of that there appeared to be a broad  lake—some body of water—with a lighthouse on a peninsula. In the pew across the aisle there was a clash of arms and in the pew ahead of that there seemed to be a herd of cattle. This lack of concentration did not distress Nailles. He did not expect to part with his flesh or his memory in the narthex. His concerns in church remained at least partially matter-of-fact, and on this winter morning he noticed that Mrs. Trencham was carrying on her particular brand of competitive churchmanship. Mrs. Trencham was a recent convert—she had been a Unitarian—and she was more than proud of her grasp of the responses and courtesies in the service; she was bellicose. At the first sound of the priest’s voice in the vestarium she was on her feet and she fired out her amens and her mercies in a stern and resonant voice, timed well ahead of the rest of the congregation as if she were involved in a sort of ecclesiastical footrace. Her genuflections were profound and graceful, her credo and confession were letter-perfect, her Lamb of God was soulful, and if she was given any competition, as she sometimes was, she would throw in a few signs of the cross as a proof of the superiority of her devotions. Mrs. Trencham was a winner.
At the beginning of the passage, we learn that when Nailles was young, he would pass the time in church transforming random, mundane patterns seen in the grain of wooden pews into iconic boyish imagery. In the latter part of the passage, we watch him transform Mrs. Trencham into a burlesque of sanctimony. And here we see more specialized vocabulary put into play; we learn of Mrs. Trencham's disingenuous amens and mercies, her genuflections and credos, her confessions and Lambs of God. These terms—together with a couple of striking phrases ("competitive churchmanship" and "ecclesiastical footrace")—heighten the bathos of the scene. This is diction at its best.

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