A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Two Moons, by Thomas Mallon

I have always been intrigued by Mallon’s historical novels, but have read only Henry and Clara, which did disappoint me. This 2000 novel, however, is quite effective. It is a quiet novel, but its youthful romance, its pursuit of scientific evidence in the heavens, and its late 19th century Washington scene are quite effective. The actual year is 1878, when the Capital is still recovering from the Civil War and people are yearning for a brighter future.

This is the story of thirtyish Civil War widow Cynthia May and her love of an ambitious astronomer Hugh Allison. Both are fictional characters. She is a mathematical whiz at the U.S. Navel Observatory, while he is a handsome and ambitious, but physically delicate, astronomer scientist. The author blends their love affair with the lives of real scientists who surround them at the Observatory. And he supplements those lives with the predictions of a presumably fictional astrologer, Mary Costello. This woman advises a powerful senator, the historic Roscoe Conkling of New York, on how the stars might help him beat back reformists who are challenging the party machine. Conkling is a ladies man, and the plot turns when he encounters Cynthia, is fascinated by her, and decides to pursue her.

Cynthia’s own story is a quiet one, not a dramatic one, and yet, as I indicated, effective. For she is both smart and settled into her widowhood—until, that is, she meets Hugh. The reality of their affair is enhanced by the care the author takes to create the hectic daily life of the Observatory, where Mary is called a computer since she deals with mathematical calculations and Hugh tracks the planets through a telescope. What also enlivens this scientific background is the political and personal infighting at the Observatory, climaxing with the desire of most of the scientists there to move their location away from Foggy Bottom, where the fog and the malarial mosquitoes both disrupt their investigation of the skies and endanger their health.

And this effort to move the Observatory is complemented by the political maneuvering in Washington D.C between the Presidency and Congress. Even as Mallon captures the woman’s point of view through Cynthia and Mary, he also captures the political history underlying this novel. Such as the maneuvering by Senator Conkling, for example, in support of President Rutherford B. Hayes, maneuvers which are not always clear to the average reader.

The scientists at the Observatory spend their time searching the skies, studying the planets (the discovery of two moons around Mars is made during this period), and seeking to identify new heavenly bodies through their telescopes. But while these efforts are directed toward reaching out and discovering unknown civilizations across the heavens, Hugh Allison thinks about knowledge flowing in the opposite direction. He wants to send out a message to those possible civilizations and make them aware of we fellow beings here on earth.

And so Hugh seeks to shine a powerful light into the sky that will draw attention toward the planet earth. As he says, he wants the speed of light to carry through the universe a message that will be found long after he himself is gone.

Much of the novel focuses on his efforts, aided by Cynthia, to obtain a machine from a fellow scientist in France that emits the powerful light that he needs. Senator Conkling enters the scene here because Cynthia realizes that, after their casual encounter and his efforts to seek an amorous relationship, she needs to develop that relationship. Because he has the power and influence to help them bring over the searchlight from France and pass it through customs.

Hugh’s plan is to take his searchlight to the top of the then unfinished Washington Monument, and to shine its beam into the sky. This effort represents the climax of the novel, after which their story eases into a quiet ending. Meaning that there is no dramatic finale, no earthshaking discovery. What follows is merely a New York Blizzard ten years later that allows the author to settle the fortunes of his main characters.

We have glimpsed in this novel a moment if imaginary history, and a moment of imaginary reality. And it is a reality both highly believable, and symbolic of its times. It reflects, as the Washington Post says, “a quaint kind of homegrown ambition and optimism that is uniquely American.”

Yes, one wants to seek out more of Mallon’s work. In his historical fictions, he brings together the humanity of his characters, whether historic or fictional. And then, as he captures the sense of their times, he lets a quiet moment of history reverberate into our future. (November, 2018)

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The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

This is a fascinating novel that begins with what purports to be an accidental death—of a college student named Bunny. But it has happened because five other students at Hampden, an obscure Vermont college, believe Bunny intends to reveal their involvement in the death of a Vermont farmer during a strange ritual. One of the five students is the narrator, Richard, who has fallen in with the other four shortly after the farmer’s death. The other students are Henry, the group’s manipulative leader; Frances, wealthy and seductive; and the twins, beautiful but aloof, Charles and Camille.

The novel is immediately fascinating because of how deeply the author understands these students and how well she communicates their bravado and their uncertainties. And yet, even as both their talk and their actions are convincing, the students themselves do not come alive on the page as separate individuals. Not even Richard, the narrator of their tale, a poor California youth who pretends to come from wealth. This may well be because all five are under the spell of eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, whose favorite saying is “beauty is terror,” and whose cultural frame of reference they have all absorbed.

The academic atmosphere, yes, comes alive, but not the characters. If these six youths seem more types than vividly individual students, it may also be because little dramatic happens after the opening pages. They are more interested in themselves than in each other. Early on, these students talk a lot, often about the Greek classics they study. And the author certainly knows those classics. But such discussions contribute more to the college atmosphere than to any dramatic developments.

Yet this rich atmosphere and the author’s fluid style sustain one’s interest.           What drives the novel early on is the fear among the four students that, angry he was not included in the ritual that resulted in the farmers death, a blackmailing Bunny will betray them. And half-way into this novel, after discussing what to do about Bunny, they quickly plan the “accident,” the murder that begins the novel. Narrator Richard is present, but more as a witness than a participant. Yet he is conscience-stricken and filled with guilt.

The students’ desperate reactions are interesting, but overall I am turned off by what is happening in this book—even as I read on to find out why this interesting author has written this novel. Where is she going with it? Certainly, identifying with these characters—with their defense of and justification of their actions—becomes difficult.

For example, the five students at first stand around and talk, often drinking or indulging in drugs, as they wait for various search parties to discover Bunny’s body and the apparent accidental circumstances. Then, after a brief campus-wide mourning, the five students attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut. All the while talking and drinking, talking about what they should do next. It is a well-drawn portrait of guilt, denial, and desperation, but nothing is really happening externally, certainly nothing dramatic.

In the final pages, the students try to come to terms with a situation in which their mutual guilt is compounded by a distrust of each other. Will one of them betray the others? Henry grows elusive. Charles gets drunk and becomes desperate. Francis panics. While narrator Richard follows them around—ineffectual, but indispensible for telling the story.

Two plot developments bring the story to a head—a melodramatic head. First, Professor Morrow, who has guided these privileged students into a world of dark conspiracies, makes a discovery that changes his view of them and the reader’s view of him. It is not a convincing shift, but seems to occur because it leaves these students without their cultural base, without the professor’s intellectual and emotional support they have long relied on.

And so they are on their own. And become desperate. One fearing death and finding a gun. One hiding from responsibility. One feeling helpless, and out of the loop. And then there is a melodramatic confrontation, followed by a death. Is there meant to be a moral here, that the victimizer becomes the victim?

The novel ends with a brief epilogue that describes the future of the various characters. But there are no revelations that further explain their actions during this melodrama of their student lives. Nor do those events have any impact on their future lives. It is simply a round-up chapter, like those that once concluded old-fashioned novels. But for me, it is a cop-out. It carries no significance. The significance of this novel is in their student experience—an experience that has turned this novel into a college novel like no other. It is as if the author has been guided into reverting to tradition. But the content of this novel is far from traditional.

And so, one asks where was the author trying to go with this novel? She began it while in college, and so one can easily conclude that she chose the college setting. That is, she decided to write from experience. But obviously, she was inspired to write something that was different. She wished to probe the psychology of students reacting to two deaths they are responsible for. There are no love stories here, nor tales of academic woes. No, this is about guilt and its repercussions.

In fact, Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, after praising this novel for its controlled pace and its entertainment value, comes to a conclusion similar to mine: “Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such silly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering doe not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.”

My first caveat is that guilt and suffering do occur. But are simply not recognized. For what else drives the inexplicable, melodramatic climax?

Nor do I find evil present in this novel. Especially a Dionysian evil out of the Greek classics. That is too much weight for these studious but callow youths to carry. They simply do not know as much as they think they know. And are unprepared for their own fateful decisions. (November, 2018)

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith

This is a longer book than one expects a mystery to be, almost 500 pages. But it is highly readable, as are all the books in this series. Here, in this 2015 work, we have a version of the Jack the Ripper legend, for the villain slashes and kills young girls and then, in this case, takes home small body parts. The novel begins when a severed leg is delivered to Robin Ellacott, who is the young assistant to Cormoran Strike, the detective hero of this series of novels.

The search for the owner of the leg is the first element that extends the length of the novel. And then the search for the killer himself adds further to the length. Because there are three primary suspects, and each has a past relationship with Strike that the author must explain. Not to mention a distracting letter in which a young girl seeks Strike’s advice on how to have one of her legs amputated. (Because Strike has lost one leg in combat in Afghanistan.)

Also adding to the length of the novel, but separate from the mystery, is Strike’s relationship with Robin. Galbraith surely intends them to be a new type of detective team, for she allows considerable space for that relationship to develop. For example, Strike often assigns Robin to look for evidence against one suspect, while he is investigating another. And so, after acting separately, they must compare notes. Their relationship also grows more complex when we learn that Robin, who has no experience in Strike’s world, was raped many years ago. Which adds to her emotional commitment to find this villain, and perhaps explains why she enjoys her role here in assisting a real detective.

Complicating the plot further, Strike is involved with a beautiful girl, Elin, whom he is drawn to sexually but who otherwise has little appeal for him. This relationship is meant to contrast with his rapport with Robin. Finally, Strike has two clients whom he also needs to serve, even if they have nothing to with the killer he is seeking. And retaining these clients also consumes his time and stretches the length of the novel.

Finally, the book’s length is affected by Robin’s engagement to a long-time friend, the handsome and dominating Matthew Cunliffe, whom Strike does not particularly like. And because Strike himself is attracted to Robin, the novel spends time exploring an office relationship that waxes and wanes. This happens when, first, Robin delays in deciding whether or not to commit to her marriage and, second, when her attempts to help Strike’s investigation become helpful at times and at other times frustrate his efforts.

The importance of Strike and Robin’s relationship is emphasized by the book’s final scene, for it suggests a significant development in that relationship, and does not, as in a standard mystery, deal with the killer, his motivation, or his fate. Indeed, Robin’s final provocative comment gets the reader to wonder where their relationship can go in future novels.

Christobal Kent in The Guardian expands on the unusual length of Galbraith mysteries, by comparing her work, metaphorically, with those of other such novelists. He first matches the author with George Simenon (“a kitchen stool”) and then with Agatha Christie (“a wingback chair”), and finally cites Galbraith as “a vast over-stuffed sofa, complete with dog hair and something unmentionable behind the cushions.”

As indicated, this particular novel begins when a severed leg is delivered to Robin at Strike’s office. The killer has done this because he wants revenge against Strike for what he considers a past betrayal, and plans to use Robin to achieve it. The author even gets into the mind of the killer, which serves to build suspense as we learn his plans. However, it does interrupt the main story, which is the search for him. Although I accept this structure, I do think Galbraith makes a small misstep toward the end, when we learn the identity of this killer before Strike learns it. Presumably this is to create a new level of suspense, but I would lean toward the reader learning his identity at the same time Strike does, in this way heightening that revelation’s impact.

The heart of this book, however, is the relationship between Strike and Robin, even though the novel’s forward drive rests with the threat the killer offers to both Robin and other innocent, unsuspecting women. To which it might be added that this is also a story of Strike and Robin against the world, for Strike is frustrated in dealing with the London police, which has decided to offer little cooperation after he showed them up in previous adventures in this series. And so he and Robin are alone in their pursuit of the actual killer.

Finally, one must acknowledge the author’s skill in creating a varied landscape, from London streets to Scottish landscapes, including the specifics of weather, architecture, and history. Everything is specific, creating that illusion of being overstuffed. Not to forget the internal complexities of an assortment of richly developed characters, rich and poor, young and old, male and female. The author reveals as much imaginative skill in creating these characters and this world of violence as she did in creating the fantasy world of Harry Potter and his friends.

One looks forward to more adventures of Cormoran Strike. But one also wonders if the author can bring a little more discipline to her imagination. Rich detail is at the heart of a novel’s reality, but the reality in a mystery novel should focus on the hero and the villain. Not on the peripheral lives of so many others. (October, 2018)

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

With this 2014 novel, Stephen King has finally written a pure mystery. The only touch of horror is in the mind of twentyish villain, Brady Hartfield, as he plots a new mass murder to follow the massacre that opens the novel. He is labeled Mr. Mercedes because he drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd of people as they awaited the opening of a job fair at a local shopping center.

Brady’s adversary, and the detective hero, is retired cop Bill Hodges, who is in his sixties and overweight, and who is being taunted by Brady for his failure to solve the shopping center massacre. The novel’s initial focus is on Hodges seeking to identify the source of these taunting messages—and King alternates their opposing viewpoints as they move closer and closer, and Hodges learns of a new mass murder plan. Indeed, alternating perspectives is a normal strategy for creating suspense, and one that again works here.

What does not work for me is Brady’s characterization. King makes him a psychopath who is in an incestuous relationship with his mother. He gets a rush from killing others, and is using his knowledge of computers and electronics, plus an inherent resentment against the world to plan the new attack. He poses in normal life as an electronics repair man and an ice cream vendor, but he does not come alive for me in any of his roles. Perhaps because of his strange, submissive relationship with his mother, plus the details of his normal life, he also does not seem to pose as a threat to the cop he is trying to provoke all through the novel.

On the other hand, the cop, Bill Hodges, is both sympathetic and believable. One can easily identify with him. Because he recognizes his weaknesses, acknowledges he has an ex-cop’s thoughts of suicide, recognizes his body can no longer keep up with the young, and is bored by a life of retirement after his adventures as a cop. He is also dumfounded when the fortyish, attractive Janey Patterson falls for him as much as he falls for her. She is the sister of the now dead owner of that Mercedes, and, like Hodges, wants very much to find the killer and see him punished.

What also adds to the solidity of Hodges’ character is that he stands up to his unknown stalker, not only rejecting the taunting messages to commit suicide but also determined to bring the mass murderer to justice. In fact, because he is being challenged to use his skills once again as a cop, he now finds life worth living. Moreover, his characterization is enhanced when he is joined in his search for the villain by two good people who become his friends: Jerome, his gardener, who is a black teenager and a computer whiz; and Holly, Jamey’s cousin, a nervous fortyish spinster who has been living under the wing of a domineering mother.

What should also be noted is King’s cold-blooded treatment of these characters we relate to and admire. He is not afraid to kill off any of them for the dramatic affect it will have, and this is how he creates a huge surprise in the center of the novel. In his own way, King is as cold-blooded as his villain, who at the climax is plotting to kill thousands of innocent girls as they gather in a local auditorium to cheer the latest pop music group.

One element, however, is not fully convincing in that climactic scene. It is a health issue that takes Hodges out of the picture and leaves in the hands of others the final effort to stop the massacre. I was unprepared for Hodge’s medical problem, and still wonder why King left the outcome in the hands of presumably less capable colleagues. Is it because he is distraught at the loss of one of his friends, and no longer able to commit himself? Is that also why King made the physical effort required of Hodges too much for him? It would seem that the design of the concert hall could have been modified by King to accommodate Hodge’s older physique.

I also have a minor reluctance to accept the role that Holly plays at the end. This neurotic middle-aged woman has the key role in the climax. She becomes the novel’s heroine, and I was not quite ready to accept this, even though she wants revenge for her sister who was driven to suicide by still other taunts of Brady. For this character conversion is a far cry from the sudden death that King wrote earlier for one of his other characters. It is as if King wants to stress the positive capabilities in all of us, and at the same time is cautioning us that a cruel fate can also intervene in our lives at any time.

I am certainly grateful that King avoids here the metaphysical horrors of his past novels. And has concentrated on a heroic portrait of this ex-cop. In true dramatic fashion, he slowly brings that ex-cop closer and closer to the neurotic villain who gets a kick out of killing people—in fact, the more Brady kills the better he feels. And he compounds the tension by keeping them apart, by having the killer exchange tantalizing messages with Hodges at the Blue Umbrella chat site, and revealing there elusive clues to his identity. If only that villain were more of an actual threat to Hodges, and had more of a possibility of success in their fateful confrontation.

This is a longer work than most mystery novels, primarily because of the detailed profiles King draws of both his cop and his villain. King’s strength is in such details, the daily events that give substance to his characters. But here, the details of Brady’s life as a repairman and an ice cream vendor are not that interesting. Nor is his neurotic life with his teasing mother. And the details of Hodges’ search for the villain, such as the many messages they exchange on the web site, also seem to extend that search more than is necessary.

Despite these faults, this is an admirable mystery novel. It certainly sweeps the reader along with its constant developments. And Hodges has interesting relationships with both his friends and the cops he once served with. It’s just that the threat of a new violent massacre at the climax is not as strong as it might have been. And the heroic sharing of success is not as convincing to me as King undoubtedly wished.

I certainly hope that King continues in this mystery vein, rather than reverts to tales of horror. It is his characters that give his novels substance, as well as the environment in which they exist. And for me, suspense is more real when it belongs to that real world. (October, 2018)

A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle

This as a magnificent novel of Ireland’s struggle to free itself from England in the early 20th century. This 1999 work is the first in a trilogy presumably about Henry Smart, the hero here. The novels that follow are not, according to later reviews, as rich and powerful as this one, but no matter. This is not only a great work but also a complete work that stands fully on its own.

We first meet Henry as a newborn baby and then watch as he is alienated from his disorganized, hard-scrabble family, until, in rebellion at about five, he begins trailing after his ne’er-do-well father, also called Henry. From his father, he learns how to live off the streets as a poor urchin, and how to escape down its cobbled lanes and even underground through its sewers. He also watches how his father uses his artificial leg to defend himself and to attack others. It is a wonderful Part One, as the reader sympathizes with and identifies with a young Henry, especially after his father abandons him and he is left, at age eight, to guide his ill-fated brother Victor in a mutual struggle to survive in their world of poverty that Henry himself has learned to resent.

In Part Two, Henry is a teenager, and we encounter him trapped in and experiencing the siege of the Dublin Post Office, an historical set-piece that is brilliantly described. He also finds the love of his life, Miss O’Shea, who is a decade older but is taken with this now six-foot, handsome youth, as she remembers his effort to become a student of hers years ago. Eventually, Henry escapes the Post Office, and in Part Three he reaches seventeen and joins Ireland’s violent struggle for freedom, working under Michael Collins and using as a weapon the artificial leg he has inherited from his now dead father. But as he progresses in the cause, the reader is challenged to continue identifying with this youth.

For while he is recruiting and training followers for Collins, he also becomes an assassin The violence in him erupts, and he begins killing the enemies of the Irish movement in cold blood, often after simply being given their name on a scrap of paper. He does not ask why. Some are occupying soldiers, and the reason is obvious. While others are Irish and are sometimes killed either for the convenience of the cause or for the personal motive of an individual rebel. But Henry follows orders. He believes in his Irish mission and in the necessity of violence. Ironically, however, when the movement achieves success, his own name will end up on a scrap of paper, because the cause regards him as a hard-boiled non-conformist, one whose independence may be inconvenient for the plans of the new Irish leaders.

The English are continually after Henry, of course, and he must constantly avoid them, which adds to the suspense of the novel. Indeed, what reader does not wish a novel’s main character to use his freedom to drive the novel and, of course, determine its direction? As a counterpoint, however, to the novel’s thriller aspect, our hero seeks out and rediscovers Miss O’Shea, which brings out the idealism and tenderness that remain within him, and which re-enforces our ability to identify with him despite his violent role in the rebellion.

Amid all the cruelty, Doyle also brings to his novel a poetic touch. Some of his descriptions reveal this, but the most prominent one appears on the opening page, where Henry’s poor, destitute mother looks to the heavens at night and calls one star Henry. She names it after her first son, also called Henry, who died in childbirth, and whom she now sees looking down upon her and her family, a child that is ever present in her memory. And our Henry resents that Henry, who was called by God in the eyes of his mother, when he regards his own poor and neglected status in his destitute neighborhood.

One drawback to the novel is the ending. It is not as satisfying as its rich portrait of Ireland’s rebellion, but it does bring a completion to this work. First, we find Henry in jail, as if the British are not completely incompetent. But if we do not witness his being captured, we are in the room as he is being tortured, and it is a scene as gruesome as some of his murders. Indeed, it is so brilliantly done that the reader feels the experience he is undergoing. But then he escapes, albeit somewhat conveniantly; and in the final scenes he is warned by former colleagues to leave Ireland. Before doing so, however, he gains retribution for the death of his father, contributing to the novel’s sense of completeness.

There are multiple qualities behind the success of this novel. First comes its narrative drive, such as the siege, the assassinations, and the attacks on the British and those Irish who are soldiers of fortune. Next is the character of Henry who is not full of himself, despite his appeal to the ladies and his successful efforts for the cause. Third is the gritty portrait of Dublin and some of rural Ireland. Fourth is the constant tension Henry experiences, both to avoid the English pursuers and to survive the moments of personal happiness. And fifth is its objective portrait of the Irish rebellion, its violence, its infighting, its adaptability, and, finally, the internal politics among its survivors after their success.

Above all, what makes this novel work is its complexity. As history often is. There is the complexity of evil serving a good. There is the injustice of the English presence in a world that is not theirs and among a people who both accept and reject those English. There is the complexity of the ambitious and the selfish taking advantage of good ends to serve personal needs. There is the complexity of the poor struggling for power and the powerful struggling to serve themselves, and often the enemy. And there is the moral complexity of untamed violence acting in the name of justice.

This work is so complete in itself, and satisfying, that I am not tempted to aggressively seek out its companions. But that does not mean I am not curious about those successors. For Doyle has established a clear reputation with his previous works, and one senses the remainder of the trilogy, called The Last Roundup, will offer many pleasures. (October, 2018)

Bishop’s Progress, by D. Keith Mano

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)

The Cloister, by James Carroll

This 2017 work is the novel by a priest that I have been waiting for. Except, as in this case, it is by an ex-priest. That is, a novel that blends human life with spiritual life and extends their interaction across history. As well as a novel that explores both the conflict and the balance between the human and the spiritual, and presents man’s obligation toward each one.

Indeed, this is a novel that one thinks could have been written by only an ex-priest, by a man who had lived in both worlds, the spiritual world and the human world, the world of philosophy and the world of politics, the world of transgression and the world of love.

This is also a novel that, for the first time in a long time, I have read slowly. This was, in part, because of the richness of the writing, in part because of the philosophical depth being explored in the conversations among its intelligent characters, and in part because I simply wanted the novel to last for a long time.

There are three stories being told here simultaneously, and we move back and forth among each one. First is the story of Heloise and Abelard, the twelfth century lovers and Catholic intellectuals, who are introduced in a Prologue. Next is the story of Jewish philosopher Saul Vedette, who is fascinated by the story of Heloise and Abelard; and his daughter Rachel, who encourages him to continue his research into Abelard while they are living in France under German occupation in the 1940s. And finally, there is the story of Michael Kavanagh, a New York parish priest who casually encounters Rachel, a docent, in the Cloisters shortly after World War II. She is a woman who, because of her own experience, recognizes the intellectual and spiritual uncertainties she senses in him.

The story of Heloise and Abelard is basically a story of rebellion. A rebellion against their vows, yes, when they fall in love and marry, but more significantly a rebellion against Catholic teaching of their time, which Carroll suggests applies to our time as well. For Abelard, sworn to his earthly love for Heloise, believes that God is also driven by love, a love of all the creatures He has created. And this love includes the Jews, who were even then being slaughtered by Crusaders heading east to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.

Professor Vedette of the Sorbonne is writing about these beliefs of the Christian Abelard because he and his daughter are Jews. And he wishes to show that, even now, centuries later, Jews are unjustly persecuted for their role in Christ’s life. His daughter not only agrees with him but also believes she can extend her elderly father’s life by supporting his effort to complete his treatise about Abelard’s defense of the Jews.

As readers, we are drawn into all three stories. We read about Heloise and Abelard, as much to have an insight into their lives as to learn about their destiny when the Church turns against them. We read about Professor Vedette and Rachel in order to learn about his fate as a Jew under the German occupation and what happens to his treatise about the persecution of Jews under a just and loving God. And we read, most of all, about Father Kavanagh, about his personal doubts and about what his final relationship will be with both Rachel and, in his vocation as a priest, with God.

The story of Abelard parallels in some ways the story of Father Kavanagh. Both become rebellious against Church teaching. Indeed, Father Kavanagh becomes convinced that Abelard was correct when he emphasized that God’s entire relationship with his creatures is based on love. And he sees how this particularly applies to the Jews. Indeed, author Carroll’s opposition to discrimination against Jews throughout history has appeared in other works of his, particularly the historical work Constantine’s Sword. So it is no coincidence that he has chosen Abelard to be the fulcrum of this fictional exploration of the Church’s relationship with Jews and with history.

The effectiveness of this novel lies in two factors. First, Carroll successfully transports us back to the twelfth century, from its physical environment and its culture to its clothing and its furnishings. And does so again with France under German occupation and mid-century New York. We see and feel each scene that he creates. And second, he captures the tension in each century between human and divine needs and between the conservative and liberal positions. Indeed, these discussions, taking place at a deep philosophical and theological level, are often not easy for a reader to follow.

Carroll explores most deeply the uncertainties in the priest’s mind. They arise particularly when Kavanagh encounters a former seminarian who has been drummed out of the priesthood, and the bishop seems to lay the blame on Kavanagh himself. It becomes even more complicated when the priest learns the true reason the seminarian was evicted. How far, we now wonder, will Kavanagh follow his doubts about his own role as a priest? How much will his reading of Abelard influence him? And how much will Rachel do the same? All three, Abelard, Rachel, and now Kavanagh, are confronted by the abuse of power. Both Rachel and Kavanagh, moreover, face their own uncertainties. In fact, as each decides where the future lies, it will not always be what the reader expects.

But back to the novel’s basic theme, which is God’s love. At the heart of this novel is a belief that God was not being a cruel God when his Son was tortured and killed to redeem mankind’s sinful lives. This is held by Abelard, by Father Kavanagh, and by James Carroll. They believe that a God who loves his creation, both this world and its humanity, does not have the capacity to treat that world with violence.

This contrasts to the twelfth century, when conservative philosophers said that God the Father proscribed a violent death of his Son on the cross in order to redeem mankind. Whereas, Abelard believed that any cruelty committed in the name of God, and justified by the cruel death of Christ on the cross, is illicit. (“Any theology that says so is wrong.”) For cruelty cannot have been willed by a loving God as the means to redeem mankind.

And yet, this reviewer has long been taught that Christ’s suffering is what earned mankind’s redemption. Whereas, Abelard’s thesis is that a loving God could not have required this of His son. But Christ does say that “not my will but thy will be done.” So he does accept it. And my understanding has long been that physical suffering was needed to compensate for all the physical actions than mankind is responsible for, from the actions of our first ancestors until today. The only answer that comes to me is that Christ was God, and that therefore God was inflicting cruelty on Himself, not on any of His creatures on this earth. It was a demonstration of His love of them.

And so, I do believe that God, in his deepest recesses, represents love, and that, like the Vatican II declaration, Jews should not be denied that love because of their role in Christ’s death. Indeed, I have long held that Jews, as the Chosen People, were meant to represent all mankind when they betrayed Christ. It was not as Jews they did so, but as human beings. That is, we all are the guilty ones. And so we all needed to be, and were, redeemed. Moreover, Christians, those who accepted Christ, are not special, and cannot use that acceptance to believe that only they are relieved of mankind’s guilt. Or to believe that Christians are the only ones who deserve reaching heaven.

In an interview, Carroll has said that violence is built into our culture today, even though God does not in any way support violence. This began, he suggests, back in the time of Abelard, when civilization, as represented by the Church, faced a fork in the road, and it chose the fork of what he calls sacred violence, the violence that still exists today against both Moslems and Jews.

Carroll has often written of the unjust persecution of Jews, and he felt that the story of Abelard, in fact, illustrated the point in history where Christians became responsible for much of that persecution. And he turned to fiction, a novel, as the best way to show how that decision of the Church long ago has resulted in constant persecution, up to the Holocaust in Germany this last century—and extends today to the mistreatment of other religions. He created the story of Rachel Vedette and Father Kavanagh, he says, to give contemporary relevance to the Church’s handling of Abelard long ago.

While there is no clear correlation among the characters in the three stages of history covered by this novel, both Heloise and Rachel are women who inspire and challenge the men in their lives, with Rachel also persuading the naïve and troubled Father Kavanagh that he has to determine his true calling. Carroll adds, however, that while Kavanagh “is not myself,” his own experience did serve to introduce questions that Kavanagh faces as a priest.

If Carroll, now in his seventies, does not write another novel, this will be his crowning work of fiction. In a sense, it will justify that entire branch of his career. He has used his life experience, even if not his personal experience, to explore the spiritual world that all readers live in. A world most novelists ignore, both because it is unimportant to them or does not interest them and because it is a difficult world to explore in the earthly terms that a novel requires. (September, 2018)