Holly Holets/The Land
Afton Historical Society Press has released its third annual Christmas reader, Underground Christmasby Jon Hassler.
Underground Christmas is the story of a man named Jay who is struggling with changes in his life, including a recent divorce and his son’s suicide attempt. Nearing 50 and seeking stability, Jay accepts a teaching position at his former college.
Jay has become terrified of change. With Christmas approaching and his friend Charlie’s decision to leave the seminary just before ordination into the priesthood, Jay is on the edge of a breakdown.
Underground Christmas reminds the reader that holiday miracles are not usually the sort of fairy tales, but of real life, that real Christmas miracles lie in our ability to accept, forgive and reestablish our relationship.
Hassler is author of 11 novels, including A Green Journey, which was produced and shown by NBC TV in 1988. Adaptations of some of his other novels have appeared on stage.
Tom Hegg/Star Tribune
“Best holiday books draw on authors’ experiences“
Underground Christmas by Jon Hassler is a most welcome arrival for the legions of readers who have loved Hassler’s Rookery Blues and The Dean’s List. This new story envelops and warms like a comfortable old cardigan with its story of a 50-year-old college professor seeking sanctuary during a working year in the seminary of his alma mater. One can feel winter’s chill, however, upon learning of the circumstances that brought him back to this place, and of the sovereign wound in his life, an estrangement from his son.
Hassler delivers the story with the lightly irreverent, gently self-mocking tone that has become his hallmark.
Mary Ann Grossmann/Saint Paul Pioneer Press
“A Best Cellar”
Jon Hassler’s first short story to be published in 19 years is not your typical touchy-feely holiday tale, and that’s just fine with Afton Press publisher Patricia Condon Johnston.
“We think the story’s tone is a plus,” Johnston says. “That’s why we went with a cover that doesn’t have a trace of red, green or glitter.”
Underground Christmas is about Jay, a middle-aged professor from Rookery, the fictional northern Minnesota town where Hassler’s novels Rookery Blues and The Dean’s List take place. Rookery, the story explains, “lies…between Paul Bunyan State Forest and oblivion.”
When the story begins, Jay is at St. Andrew’s College and Abbey (which sounds a lot like St. John’s University in Collegeville, where Hassler is a professor emeritus). Jay is tired and angry. His wife divorced him to move in with a female lover, and his son is in treatment after nearly killing himself with drugs and alcohol.
On Christmas Eve, Jay is having a drink with a couple of seminarians and a monk in the abbey’s former root cellar (hence the story’s title). He bites his tongue when a young seminarian asks what to do about being tempted by a curvy secretary. But he explodes when he learns, on Christmas morning, that his friend in the seminary is going to postpone being ordained so that he can go out into the world and experience what it’s like to drive a car, go to a shopping center and earn a good living.
“Listen to me, you dope,” Jay rages. “You don’t need to know that stuff. If you leave now, you’ll never come back, I’m certain of that. You’ll never be a priest. You’re a little too earnest when you talk about money, your eyes glow with desire when you mention the shopping centers you pretend to despise.” He is so vociferous he makes the man cry.
On Christmas Day, Jay drives to his son’s treatment center in Rookery, joining other divorced or estranged fathers who are traveling “in hopes that a beloved child somewhere will love us in return.”
His son, Bob, is doing well in treatment, but Jay thinks Bob is not the son he knew. Finally, Bob blurts out that his dad looks awful and asks why he’s so angry. Jay longs to confide in his son about his feelings:
“It behooves me to explain myself, and yet ‘fear’ is such an embarrassing little word to utter in connection with oneself. I need to tell him, since he brought it up, that ever since my life fell apart last summer, I’ve been waiting for the next thing to go wrong. I’ve been walking tentatively, afraid that a misstep will cause the rest of the floor to give way.”