Back in the 1950s, before the Beatles suggested "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" people not only didn't do It in the road, they rarely did It at all. Certainly not good Catholic girls, whose bodies were wrapped in shapeless uniforms while their fantasies were equally hemmed in by the walls of schools with names like Our Lady of This or Blessed Savior of That.
To read "Virgins" is to remember the days when a kiss was two tightly closed mouths colliding and there were definite rules as to where a roving hand could rove. "Anything above the neck was O.K., although there was some question about open-mouthed kissing. Tongue-swabbing, Sean decided, was only a venial sin, but you had to work up to it, not dive right in, tongues atwirl. Toes to thighs, to within a half-inch of you-know-where, was also venial. Touching boobs on top of clothes (patting, no squeezing) was probably venial, but even more borderline than tongues, so must be reserved for special occasions, like the prom or graduation."
Peggy Morrison does her venial sinning with Sean McCaffrey, her next-door neighbor and best friend since the two of them played doctor at age 5. Sean is a very good kisser and parking with him in the big white Cadillac El Dorado with the license plates reading "Year of Our Lady" makes Peggy feel all tingly.
But at the end of the year, after he graduates from high school, Sean will go off to a seminary to study for the priesthood. "What if I found out that I was hooked on his kisses, the way some people get strung out on heroin?" Peggy worries. "I'd have to follow him around everywhere he went, to get my daily fix; I'd have to hide behind the water font in the sacristy and spring out at him when he came in from the rectory to say six o'clock Mass, kissing him madly while he put on his alb and his chasuble. He'd get sick of that pretty quick:
'Kiss me! Kiss me, Father, I got to have my fix!'
' "Get away from me, you disgusting junkie!" '
'Please, just this once! I promise, after this, I'll go cold turkey.'
' "Don't you have any pride?" '
"Oh God, just one smackeroo. Please, Sean, don't make me beg!'
' "Oh, all right. But if you're here again after the eleven o'clock Mass, I'll have you thrown out on your ear." '
'Oh bless you, Father! Now pucker up!' "
Sean, The Kissing Priest, is one of the nicer heroes to stumble out of the '50s. "Sean could never stand to see anything hurt. Before he decided to be a priest, he was going to be a veterinarian. He always dragged home wounded birds and cats and mice. It is probably a good thing he abandoned his plans to be a vet, because while he was well intentioned, he was also clumsy . . . Sean usually dropped his patients while he was trying to put iodine on them, and then we'd have a requiem mass in the back yard, with Sean, of course, officiating."
The Kissing Priest is cursed not only with clumsiness, but with a father the newspapers have dubbed the Nemesis of Smut. The Nemesis is a hyperactive, 1950s Catholic, leading attacks on dirty movies, joining the Modesty Crusade whose aim is to promote fashions the Blessed Virgin Mary would approve of, aiding a White Russian in his attempts to pray godless Russia to its knees.
And no, if you are too young to remember those days, Caryl Rivers is not making it all up.
In the early pages, Rivers has her heroine speak in too brittle and wisecracking a way, but she gradually changes the book's tone and people who start out as caricatures -- burdened with the silliness we can always see in an era that has just ended -- become real characters. One mother, on becoming a widow, realizes how fragile her financial future may be; another clings in desperation to a husband who drinks and beats her. Rivers wants us to see that the security of women in the cozy suburbs of the 1950s was an illusion, but she doesn't use the point to poke us.
Rivers has written a very funny book where students are given Straight Talk for Teens, girls are encouraged to fend-off seducers by announcing, "I am a Child of Mary," and the school paper runs a weekly feature called "Saint's Corner." But even as you giggle at the Kissing Priest seducing Peggy under the button-eyed gaze of his stuffed animals, Fuzzy and Teddy, you hope very much that all concerned will have a happy future.