I keep coming back to a particular place as I read my way through Greg Herren’s Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, and it’s this: Herren does such a solid job of unreliable narrators. In this latest story, “Acts of Contrition,” I spent the first third of the story so completely unsure whether or not our fallen priest was falsely accused, having a breakdown, and/or genuinely a decent fellow, and by the end of the tale, I’m still not entirely sure—though I have my suspicions.
“Acts of Contrition” opens with temptation and murder, and former-Father O’Reilly as he navigates his lot in New Orleans where he’s still allowed to do some work for the church, but has been released from his vows because of something—we find out some of the details later—the church decided was too hard to fight on his behalf. Rather than a scandal, a defrocked priest and a payout was the solution, and so now O’Reilly works outreach with street youth alongside the actual priest at a small church.
There’s a cameo for fans of Herren’s mystery series, and a serial killer provides the ticking clock of the story as O’Reilly tries to bring a particular young woman to safety during a New Orleans rainy streak choking the city with an ongoing storm. At the same time, the man’s dreams, his less-than-stable nature, and his bitterness and anger over the accusations that sent him to New Orleans roil up in counterpoint to his “altruistic” plans. It’s a dark little story, and it’s one you can read a few different ways, much like the O’Reilly character himself.