Reprobates abound at a Jesuit prep school in a dying, industrial city — chain-smoking, ale-guzzling priests, a star quarterback whose brutal hangover costs his team the Holy War, a head coach with a gambling problem, a failed writer and an oversexed teacher. Then, there's Zanzibar Towers and Gardens, a flophouse where students and alums hang out with prostitutes.
Kevin P. Keating's The Natural Order of Things (Aqueous Books, $14) is a darkly brilliant, sometimes disturbing odyssey that lays bare the human condition. Keating, an English professor at Baldwin-Wallace University and Cleveland State University, has crafted a novel in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio with 15 interconnected stories featuring characters who "revel in self-debasement, which they mistake for virtue."
It's not much of a leap to identify St. Ignatius as the inspiration for the setting of Keating's novel. The 41-year-old author is an alumnus of the Cleveland all-boys Catholic high school where he first started writing. "Everybody else in my family went to St. Edward. I was the only smart one," he laughs.
Keating, who worked as a boilermaker, bookie's apprentice, maintenance man, landscaper and painter while he attended college at night, says The Natural Order of Things is the result of dozens of short stories with a common thread, all of which had been previously published in literary journals.
"I think this is a pretty honest book," says Keating, whose influences include Stanley Kubrick, H.P. Lovecraft and Oscar Wilde. "Some of it is outrageous, but deep down there is a lot of truth to it. I've always been fascinated with what happens when the secular world meets the religious world. I tried to make this book as vivid as I could."
One of the final chapters of the novel, "The Black Death of Gentile da Foligno," was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by author Thomas E. Kennedy. The novel has also drawn advance praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler.
"This is really the same kind of bizarre and creepy stuff I was writing at St. Ignatius when I was 16," Keating says. "All of my friends are terrified it's going to be about them. Half the [Ignatius] people who read this will be with me, and the other half will want my head on a platter."