At play in the fields of Less Than Nothing

Back in December, I had some passing words of praise for Matt Labash. I will make the obligatory disclosure that I’m friendly with him, but I don’t think that in any biases me when I say he’s easily one of the best magazine writers in the country. Just go ahead buy the recently released collection of his work and thank me later.

Labash has a talent for sniffing out and profiling really interesting people — or in some cases, publicly shaming them. The profile piece is pretty much his bread and butter, and as someone who’s been around the block a bit as a journalist, let me tell you profiles are just about the hardest thing to write. Labash is phenomenally good at them, and if he wrote for Esquire as opposed to a small circulation magazine otherwise devoted to conservative politics he’d have to rent storage for his National Magazine Awards.

So with that in mind, do not let the fact that I’m about to recommend that you drop whatever it is you’re reading and read 10,000+ word piece intimidate you. In Labash’s capable hands it will breeze by, and by any measure his profile of a priest prone to profane outbursts doing mission work in post-earthquake Haiti is a marvel, and the kind of thing he was born to write.

The piece just oozes humanity. Take this anecdote about Father Frechette and the weekly morgue runs his mission makes, where they bury the heaps of unclaimed dead bodies an area outside Port-Au-Prince known as Titanyen, which translates from Creole as the “fields of less than nothing.” Frechette has never gotten used to the smell so he smokes Marlboro Reds and drinks Barbancourt rum:

He’s been doing the morgue runs for 15 years, but has never gotten used to the smell. It makes him so sick, he brings along rum and cigarettes. “People ask me if I smoke,” he says. “Only on Thursdays.” The Haitians avail themselves of the goods, but for Frechette, they’re not optional. Without the spirit’s fumes and cigarette smoke chasing the smell of the dead out of his nostrils, he vomits, which his Haitian colleagues find amusing.

When he returned to Haiti right after the earthquake, there was an overflow crowd at the morgue, literally thousands of dead laid out in the street in front of it. “They were picking them up with backhoes and bucket-loaders, dumping them into trucks,” says Frechette, adding that the machines crunched the bodies against the walls in order to be able to scoop them. “They were hanging out the sides like crabs in a bucket. Really, really terrible. It was so shocking, so disgusting, I yelled, ‘Give me a cigarette!’”

His Haitian right-hand and all-around fixer, Raphael — whom Frechette regards as something close to a brother — couldn’t find them. Frechette, now desperately gagging, was yelling, “Give me a f–ing cigarette!!!” A journalist, taking in the scene, sidled up to him. “I heard somebody say, ‘I’m an ABC affiliate, and I’m wondering, are you Father Frechette?’ I said, ‘Do I look like a priest?’ I wasn’t going to be caught using foul language.” By the time the cigarettes were found, he says, it was too late. “I was empty of everything.”

Maybe it’s just me but the portrayal of an otherwise immensely courageous priest as a complicated, impious human being is downright refreshing. That anecdote is near the beginning of the piece and it’s one of the first of many that will threaten to tear a hole in your heart.

But of great interest to me were the revelatory moments where Frechette attempts to explain himself, and how he copes with unfathomable suffering on daily basis — in Frechette’s case, a finely honed sense of dark humor is something of a salve:

He knows it, too, and figures that second only to his faith in a God that orders the universe even amidst the apparent chaos, humor is his salvation. He tells me he read somewhere that a normal reaction to a normal thing is normal, and an abnormal reaction to an abnormal thing is normal. But a normal reaction to an abnormal thing is abnormal. Even so, there’s a “hierarchy of maturity,” he says. You can become a “psychological fetus,” upon witnessing horrors like Haiti’s, which makes you a burden to everybody, as the problem becomes comforting you. You can become angry, blaming everyone or everything. But the most productive abnormal reaction, he says, is to find laughter. He does that, he reasons, and it keeps him moving. And he always has to keep moving.

Or again his reaction to this story about how Frechette tries to reconcile an incident where he and some nuns come across a boy who’s burned alive in the street by gang members. The boy’s mother tries to thank them:

Then she saw it come back. And the people in it got out, and “put out my son like I was wishing I could put out the fire on my son’s body.” Then they picked him up until he was clean. Then they prayed for him. “Everything she tried to do was done in front of her, by absolute strangers who didn’t know her or her kid.”

Of all the emotions the woman was entitled to, he wouldn’t guess gratitude would be high on the list. And yet there she was. “It made her able to live with it,” Frechette thinks. “It’s like God sent someone to help her, like it restored her faith in humanity again. … I call it the countersign. The terrible thing that’s in front of you, you hurry, and offset it right away. Before what happens is too taxing and too poisonous. … Sometimes with horrible things, you really feel there is nothing you can do. Nothing. You’re just useless. But over time, you start seeing that to do the right thing no matter what has tremendous power.”

I don’t want to belabor this, because this is one of the best things you’re going to read all year. There’s no point in denying the tremendous power of this piece and there’s no shortage of religion in it.

That said, I do half-wish that there was some slightly more explicit discussion of Frechette’s theological outlook, considering the man wrestles with more theodicy before nine a.m. than some people do in their lifetimes. But if the story lacks that, it could simply be that Labash, mighty fine writer that he is, is simply more invested in showing rather than telling. I got a better grasp in this story of the challenges of mission work from a vocational perspective than just about anything I’ve ever read, so I guess even at 10,000 words you can’t possibly say everything.

Just read the piece already, and say prayer for Haiti if you’re so inclined.

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  • Jerry

    Maybe it’s just me but the portrayal of an otherwise immensely courageous priest as a complicated, impious human being is downright refreshing.

    It’s not just you. I find compelling a report that illustrates how divinity shines someone’s humanity.

  • Jerry

    how divinity shines someone’s humanity.

    That will teach me to talk on the phone and try to pay attention to my work computer at the same time. I meant how divinity shines through someone’s humanity.

  • http://weneedus/tumblr.com Ted Daniels

    Two points: I think you left something perhaps significant out of your last excerpt, when it begins “Then she saw it come back.” What’s it?

    And, being retired, I spend a lot of time looking for good things to say about religion; any religion. You seem to have better sources than I do. I hope you bring more like this our way.

  • Julia

    That’s one of the most affecting pieces I have ever read.

    “it” was a truck with the priest & his crew that stopped just long enough to take in the situation of the poor young man and then come back to care for the body.