Bishop’s Progress, by D. Keith Mano

by Robert A. Parker

This is an interesting hospital novel within a religious framework, but the 1968 work is also notable as a novel that slowly changes its mood as the reader moves into its story. It begins with a supercilious Protestant bishop being rushed to a hospital because he has a serious heart problem. He acts quite superior to his secretary, the taxi driver, and the hospital personnel. And one follows his distinctive attitude with a quiet smile. One feels superior to him, as if one understands him but that he himself does not realize the impression he makes.

The bishop, Whitney Belknap, demands a private room. But there is none, and into the room he is given there soon arrives an innocent young Catholic boy, a cranky old man who is on life-support, and a garrulous, cantankerous, lecherous middle-aged man. These are Jimmy Lopopulo, who also has a heart problem, David Farbstein, who has just had a heart operation, and Artie Carson, who has stomach cancer. All four are, like the bishop, patients of a mysterious Dr. Snow.

As the bishop interacts with these patients, the mood of the novel changes. All are confronting death, and Jimmy and Artie particularly look to the bishop for support and comfort. There develop long conversations, with Artie particularly, about the need for faith and what happens after one dies. Which are also raised by the youthful Jimmy, even though he seems unalarmed by the threat of death around him. However, the bishop becomes very concerned about the boy, and the reader detects a changing mood in the novel.

The bishop has written a popular religious book that heralds love as the basis for human existence, more so than the trappings of religious faith. But now, being exposed to these patients and their concern for the afterlife, he becomes interested in them, no longer regards them superciliously, and begins to alter his feelings about religion. Indeed, each chapter closes with an italicized prayer, as the bishop directly and humbly addresses God in behalf of both himself and his fellow patients.

The reader initially senses this change in the bishop because of casual statements whose meaning the man himself does not explain. But other mysterious developments occur as well, such as that patients seem to disappear, such as that there is no record on the hospital staff of Dr. Snow’s assistant, a Dr. Crecy, or of a nurse, Miss Black. So do those people really exist? Or are they a figment of the bishop’s imagination, even perhaps a symbol? Moreover, Dr. Snow himself is presented so abstractly, with his high intelligence, his self-assuredness, and the professional respect he has, that one wonders if he also is being presented as a symbol. Some critics have even detected an air of Mephistopheles about him.

One particular symbol I could not figure out is the view from the patients’ window of the Hudson River. The bishop constantly goes to the window and refers to that view, including sailboats, barges, and tugboats. I suspected that life on the river represented something, but what was not clear. At the end, there is even a hurricane, in which the wind and rain batter at that window. Does this view represent concern for the world outside? Or is it primarily to set up the bishop’s dream at the end of the novel?

For that dream is quite confusing. In it, the bishop is floating in a small dory down a river and is headed toward the sound of a huge falls. One initially reads this as a metaphor for dying, but one also wonders if this is simply that metaphor, or is the bishop actually dying. He awakens, however, and then begins dressing himself. Whereupon, Dr. Snow returns, and we learn the bishop does want to have his scheduled heart operation, and thus be under the control of Dr. Snow. The novel ends shortly afterward.

But what does it all mean? According to the book’s flap, it means his fellow patients have shown him that his prestige as a bishop has endangered his immortal soul, and, recognizing this finally, he is fighting at the end to save it, fighting to live up to the beliefs he has been teaching Jimmy and Artie. By the way, these two characters are the most believable in the novel—unlike the bishop, who is called upon to represent a religious perspective as well as be a human patient with a bad heart. And unlike Dr. Snow, who represents, the flap says, material and technical progress, along with modern authority’s demand for obedience.

However, these various symbolic meanings did not come across to me while reading this work. Why? Is it my failing? Or did the publishers also believe readers might miss that meaning, and that is whey they included an explanation on the flap?

Perhaps so, the more I think about it.

For I also think that Mano, in this first novel, has focused too much on meaning and not enough on his characters. Only Artie and Jimmy, as I said, come across as real people. In fact, the bishop’s religious doubts would seem to offer a prime opportunity to explore more deeply his human side. And thus help the reader to identity with him, regarding him with more sympathy, more interest, more understanding—rather than trying to puzzle out what his role is here, why his mood is changing, and why the author has him offering Artie and Jimmy extensive religious stories and assurances of life after death. Ideally, I think the emphasis should be on what is happening inside him, the bishop, rather than on his roommates.

What does work here is the hospital setting, with its long, boring hours, the routine interruptions, the obedience demanded of patients, the longed-for visitors, and the lack of information that patients receive. It is also, of course, an ideal setting for a confrontation with death—and with the resulting concern about the life one has lived and the existence to follow.

Mano was a conservative Christian who wrote many novels within a religious framework. And I admire him for that. In fact, other novels of his might well interest me. But as a first novelist here, I believe he is too committed to exploring the role of religion in our world, instead of exploring how one man reacts to the role of religion in his particular life, the doubts he has, and how his beliefs conflict with the material world around him. Mano needed to address this directly, rather than through symbolic characters and metaphorical events. (September, 2018)