Big in Heaven: A Collection of Stories
Reviewed by Mark Bair, published in The Englewood Review of Books
Stephen Siniari’s Big in Heaven is a profoundly moving collection of short stories. Each one involves the people of Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church, a fictional Eastern Orthodox congregation. Siniari created a gritty, no-nonsense Philadelphia working-class neighborhood called Fishtown. Memorable characters like Teddy the Horse, Two-Beer Eddie, Officer Nardozzi, Rabbi Aaron, and Father Naum live out their faith in and around places like Shooky’s Taproom, Lefty’s Barber Shop, and Little Harry and Getzy’s Salvage.
But these stories are neither nostalgic nor sentimental. They bear almost no resemblance to Christian fiction I’ve read. Stephen Siniari, himself an Orthodox priest, evokes a place where honest, broken people are to various degrees touched by Christ’s mysterious power. As David R. Fox writes in the foreword, “Father Stephen’s stories are about the kind of people perhaps never even imagined by most American readers… stories that break the mold of what a religious story out to be…”
It’s relatively easy to portray evil and corruption—especially caricatures of religious sin, but Siniari takes the bold step of trying to make goodness compelling. But he does not do this by inserting sermons into the dialogue—not even from the leader of Saint Alexander, Father Naum himself. Goodness and love are embodied. The stories are like icons to ponder.
The first two stories set a realistic tone with great power. The first, “Big in Heaven,” immediately immerses the reader into the world of a flawed congregation where love is at work. One of the parishioners, Mary, vocalizes the anti-immigrant wing of the church. She yells at Raskova, an elderly woman, “Get your foreign ass over here and clean up this baby shit.” Raskova served as a tank mechanic in the Soviet Army in WWII and was a prisoner at Dachau Concentration Camp. She responds, “Don’t worry for me… I clean baby shit. It a small thing (sic)… but big in heaven.” Sadly, “nobody knew she was lonely… no one knew her suffering. They never bothered to look in her eyes.”
While the first story powerfully prepares the reader for the kind of people Father Naum serves, the second, “Two Things,” takes us into the broken beauty of Naum himself. Like Moses in the wilderness with Israel, Father Naum let his anger overtake him to the point of alienating his family. To help stay humble, Naum keeps two things in his prayer corner as reminders—objects he broke in anger. In his own home, the proximity has exposed his pretense, and the whole church knows.
In the stories that follow, the reader sees that Naum’s weakness qualifies him to be a sympathetic priest. He is not what we would typically call a “good” man. He is flawed, broken, and lonely. Yet, he loves. He extends himself to people who are sometimes apathetic, dismissive, or ungrateful. He is humble, but no self-pitying coward. Sometimes, in addition to his priestly duties, Naum has supported himself by working at the local putty factory. As one man observed, “Nobody said anything about the putty on his steel-toed boots, or the turpentine solvent, or whatever smell was on his beard and his clothes.”
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