Thursday 10 December 2009

The Bishop's Man - Spoiler Alert!

He pulled "a Kazantzakis".

Well, I finished The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre. When it comes out in paperback, I will add it to my bookshelf. The book has a long waiting is at my public library so I brought it back as soon as I was finished reading. No one else that I know has read it yet, so these are my thoughts.

If MacIntyre sounded befuddled about how these things could happen (see previous blog, August 30, 2009), that befuddlement is at the heart of the problems that I have with the book. I was mildy dissatisfied when I came to the end. As I started writing the blog, I must say that I became extremely dissatisfied with the novel.

First, the book is not a bad read. I wouldn't say that the protagonist is a filled out character. In fact, the construction of the story is such that it is a bit confusing rather than compelling. As a novel, its plot is highly contrived. Some of the mysteries were solved, but too much of it left a bad taste in my mouth.

If the author can be said to have had an agenda, it was to explain that a) life wasn't easy for the bishop's man and by extension for all priests; b) it is the institution rather than its members that is to blame for the sexual scandals of the church; c) good priests are being ruined by the sins of a few; and d) celibacy isn't easy. Oh, and priests were abused as children too. Oh, and when children are abused, it's usually by family members. Lord Almighty, this has got to be a comforting book for a lot of people.

In the final analysis, this is a "whodunnit" of child molestation. In my opinion, the book trivializes the problem, although I don't think that was the author's intention. I have heard him being interviewed. However, I do think that it all started with "this would be a good idea"; how will we do this? Oh, I have a good idea. Let's make it a mystery. Let's make it look like the priest did it, but it was really the uncle." Like most of us, MacIntyre is bothered by the problem of priest who sexually abuse children. As a Roman Catholic, I suspect that he would be unable to actually delve very far into the issue without hitting his own brick walls - but that is just my opinion.

In some ways, the book reads like an over-the-top melodrama: a series of bizarre "Three's Companyesque" not so hilarious misunderstandings! The three main examples are:

  1. the boy who became the Bishop's Man misunderstood his father's being in his sister's bedroom late at night - we are supposed to think that the father had sexually abused the sister, but really he was having a PTSD moment of something bad that had happened to him in WW2. The Bishop's Man feels guilty about this his whole life until he found out that his sister wasn't an incest survivor. He finally asked her. Except that it is not quite spelled out in the novel exactly what happened.
  2. the priest (I think his last name was Bell) whom the Bishop's Man had hidden away with Father Mullins after an unsavory drunken single incident of sexual abuse of a minor in Newfoundland, hadn't abused that boy who commits suicide. However, all the way through the novel, we are led to believe that was what had happened and what was eating away at the Bishop's Man (not that he did anything about it). Whew!!!!!!!!!! It turns out that it wasn't Bell (in fact, the priest, Bell, had been abused as a boy himself and that's why the boy who committed suicide was talking so much with him - victims recognize other victims). The Bishop's Man had spent all that time worrying about it for nothing.
  3. then there's the story of what happened in the Caribbean. Another case of mistaken identity This time, the Bishop's Man was having an affair with Jacinta, a good friend of his priest pal, Alfonso. One night Alfonso is murdered by a man sent by Jacinta's ex-husband. However, he was supposed to murder the Bishop's Man. He had been told to kill the "red" one. He thought it meant someone who was a communist (or communist-like). But really, he was supposed to kill the Bishop's Man who had flaming red hair. He was the intended target. Need I mention that the Bishop's Man has also been carrying around that guilt.
Then there are the moral issues.

  1. MacIntyre wants us to understand that this issue is a problem of an institution that is too big; that it is wrong to place so much faith and time into making sure that an institution is not sullied by scandal. The Bishop is the person who articulates this answer to the question, "Why?". Well at least to the question, "Why the coverup?" MacIntyre needs to go back an take a basic course in Roman Catholic dogma, starting with the Fourth Lateran Council. The Church is Mother; the Church is Father (see B5 for Strazinski's critique on the Roman Catholic church - the Psych Corps: the Corps is Mother; the Corps is Father). The church is also the imago on earth of the heavenly city of God. The Church can do no wrong; the Church has, is and always will be right. Maybe most people in the pew no longer believe that, but I'll wager any money that Pope Benedict XVIth does.
  2. Then there is Father Roddy, the priest who teaches philosophy and has been the Bishop's Man's mentor. The Bishop's Man caught him with a young boy. He reported him to the Bishop and that led to th Bishop's Man being sent to the Caribbean (see above for what happened there). Nowhere in the book do we really see the Bishop's Man break ranks - even after he realizes that the Bishop has know all along that Father Roddy has been seuxally abusing young boys for decades. Father Roddy was a close friend of the Bishop. Even after there is a suicide (not THE suicide) and law suits, the Bishop's Man doesn't come forward with what he knew. He just has a fight with the Bishop. In fact, for all those years, he constantly questioned whether or not he had actually seen what he saw.
  3. MacIntyre also wants us to understand that the priest's life is a lonely one. They have no one to share their lives with. This is why they drink too much, for example or, I guess, why they sexually abuse children - they need the comfort?
  4. Nowhere in the story does anyone try to intervene with the boy, Danny (let's use that name) who commits suicide. Everyone know that there is something wrong. Even in the 90s, this boy is exhibiting behaviours congruent with a sexually abused boy. His parents & family figure he'll grow out of it; his fiancee doesn't understand it. But the priest doesn't seem to suspect it either - sort of. It is not cear when he thinks that maybe that is the problem. The thing of it is that he thinks that maybe it is the priest Bell, whom he placed in that small town. So rather that spend any time really trying to find out what is wrong with the boy, the Bishop's Man hides behind the idea that the boy will eventually come to him. However, he makes it fairly clear that he really doesn't want to talk about it. Besides if Bell had sexually abused Danny, then it was the Bishop's Man's fault and he is unwilling to have that known. Even when he keeps trying to contact Bell, it is not really clear why, except to salve his own conscience? This is a shallow, shallow self-absorbed man. Now it may be that this is what MacIntyre intended, but from the interviews, I don't get that feeling. I think that we are supposed to understand and feel sorry for the Bishop's Man, or at least have some empathy for his difficult life.
The book feels like a whitewash. No institution stands without the men and women who make up that institution. The institution only works if the people in it make it work. It is people like the Bishop's Man who let the church get away with the coverup for years and years - centuries actually (but that is a book in itself).

What really bothers me is that at the end of the book everything is still a secret. Nobody, but nobody spoke for the boy who had committed suicide. So is it enough that Uncle Willy is dead - possibly killed by the Bishop's Man? Is it enough that the Bishop's Man hands in his resignation to the Bishop (at least I think that is what happened)? I haven't even mentioned the reporter who is chasing the different stories and the Bishop's Man lies to him. He may resign but is he going to call up that reporter and tell him the truth? Wouldn't bet a plug nickel or a million$$$ on that!

The book barely scratches the surface of the problem. Could we call it a whitewash? I don't think that Linden MacIntyre did that on purpose. I think that he just doesn't get it. He creates a world where everyone is idolated. In the end, everyone is a victim so you don't have to feel really, really, really angry at the poor priests who are just trying to do their job.

Just once, I'd like to see a priest, bishop, whatever, turn state's evidence - blow the whistle on the whole bunch of them. There are priests like Father Thomas Doyle, but they are few and far between.

Obviously, the author doesn't know any abusing priests (or if he does, I have a hard time understanding why the Bishop's Man's crisis is so muted), nor I suspect is he familiar with the abused (perhaps as reporter with the Fifth Estate), at least not on a close personal level. The objectivity of the reporter just didn't work for explaining a personal crisis that the protaganist was supposed to be undergoing. I really wonder if he sat down and watched Deliver Us From Evil, if only to get a sense of just what an abuser is really like and how the coverup really works. Would the book have been the same if he had?

Why is it important? Many people are going to read this book. It won the Giller Prize, which means that in Canada, at least, a lot more people are going to be comforted by the message of this book, rather than be discomfitted.

The question is why did it win The Giller Prize? The following is the blurb on the Giller website. It reads like a synopsis of the book, not a reason why it won - unless the reason is just that it was written at all.

The Bishop’s Man centres on a sensitive topic - the sexual abuses perpetrated by Catholic priests on the innocent children in their care. Father Duncan, the first person narrator, has been his bishop's dutiful enforcer, employed to check the excesses of priests and, crucially, to suppress the evidence. But as events veer out of control, he is forced into painful self-knowledge as family, community and friendship are torn apart under the strain of suspicion, obsession and guilt. A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding.”

Did we read the same book??? Maybe my personal and professional experience has made me way too cynical.

I am now going to track down as many reviews of the book as I can. I will analyze them in the next blog. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

enjoyed your rant.
i found the story confusing, was not even sure how it ended.
Unfortunately McIntyre likes sensationalism sometimes in his Fifth Estate stories, too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight. I was very confused with Bell and who did what. Now its much clearer!

Anonymous said...

Having just finished the book, I was much comforted by your comments. Thought I might be the only one to feel that way....

Seila Redmond said...

Thanks to all of you. I finally bought the book in paperback (just to keep my promise to myself). There are other books that need the same treatment. This encourages me to get down to work again!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation I read the book and enjoyed it but was lost by the end.


Anonymous said...

Just finished the book and was so confused that I had to come online to try to find some answers. This information really helped! I do agree with many of your comments.

Anonymous said...

Yes this definitely helps. Just finished the book and was just lost, had to read the ending again and thought maybe I had figured out but just to be sure came on line to see what I could find.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, I like alot of other people on here just finished the book and was totally confused. Your synopsis was very helpful and I agree with your comments. Although I am glad I read this book, I think it had the potential to be so much more.

Anonymous said...

I'm a tad disappointed with the novel. Perhaps I was expecting more from a Giller winner. Technically, I found the book too demanding -- The flow was often choppy and I found myself re-reading paragraphs for clarity as some of the transitions were difficult to follow. Who's speaking now? What year is it? Where are they? At times, with the "seamless" dialogue it was hard to track who said what. I appreciated the many levels and multiple plots but weaving these together seemed laborious, to write I would think and to read. I wasn't entirely sure nor satisified with the conclusion and appreciate the earlier review and clarification. I would love to know what the Catholic church thought of the Bishop's man himself and if the portrayal of ambiguity among clergy is as truthful and prevalent as it is portrayed here. As a Catholic, it did not ring entirely true for me. Not my experience. I didn't buy it. The novel certainly touches on the victims of Church abuse but leaves me feeling that there is so much more that could have been said through stronger character development. Still so many unanswered questions.

Sheila said...

Glad my review helps. I too couldn't understand how the book got the Giller Prize (see my blog on the subject!)

Unanswered questions? No kidding! The whole area is difficult to comprehend in any satisfactory way. I might suggest starting with something like Vows of Silence: the Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II by Jason Berry & Gerald Renner. While parts of it are difficult to read from an emotional perspective [but barely touches the surface, believe it or not], it does give some insight into the structure of the Roman Catholic institution & some of the theology. The first half is about Father Thomas Doyle (the good guy) and Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaires (the bad guy) and their interactions with the papacy & curia.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for digging this over for us. It was a confusing story and I wasn't clear on what happened. I just finished the sequel, and wish I'd read your blog first!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your analysis and for the questions you raised and answered. I consider myself to be a good reader and Henry James is my favorite author, but not even the complexity of the James prose style prepared me for the ending of "The Bishop's Man." I could not determine exactly what had happened at the end of the novel. A third reading revealed that B.Bell had not abused the dead adolescent, but even this created a question. How many others had he abused? I did not see that Willie was the abuser and I did not pick up on the fact that he was the uncle of the dead boy. It is inconceivable to me that the editors did not demand a rewrite. As an American and as someone probably with a degree of unjustified faith in the RCMP, I cannot believe that Duncan was not charged with manslaughter. The evidence had to be presented to an inquest. What was happening to "Danny" was just so obvious that the failure of the priest and the family was criminal. As the novel moved forward, I became less and less sympathetic to MacAskill and the Bishop. It is believable that an error could be made with one case, but case after case reveal both the narrator and the bishop to be guilty of the most astonishing evil. As Ford Madox Ford wrote at one point, "We are all so alone." Yet that loneliness does not drive us to harm others or to do nothing to stop the harm being done to others, when the harm is so obvious. In the end, both Father MacAskill and his Bishop are as reprehensible as those who have destroyed Danny and countless others.The last scene with MacAskill embracing the father of Danny, a MS victim able to walk with the help of two canes, is emblematic of the hypocrisy of the narrator/author(?). The sentimentalism of the narrator was insufferable. If the MS guy had been able to beat MacAskill to the ground with those canes, there would have been some truth at the end. Unlike your previous reviewer, I will not approach the sequel. MacIntyre needs a better editor (the novel is still at a draft stage) and the Giller Prize jury needs some fresh blood. Thank you for your blog.

Anonymous said...
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L. McDonald said...

Good novels do not always wind things up neatly as most of your previous commenters seem to have wanted. Often good novels leave us to imagine, speculate, contemplate whether the protagonist did in the end do the right thing by talking to the reporter, or did he continue his silence on the matter even after walking away from the church. It might leave us thinking, "What would I have done?" I had no trouble following what was going on - this was a story not so much about the issue as about the character of a man connected with the issue, Sexual abuse is certainly the subject, but it is not the theme of the novel. If readers want to read a novel that wraps everything up in a nice naïve little bow, then I can recommend some, but believe me the are not considered good novels, certainly not prize winners.
I imagine you will not approve this comment, but I had to get this off my chest.

Sheila Redmond said...

It is not a question of whether I approve or disapprove of your comment. However, I am a bit surprised that you would go looking for commentaries on the book if it was that clear to you. If you have read the previous comments, you would find that most people read the book because it isn't clear to them what is going on.

The ending is one little portion of my problems with the book. I am presently watching "Sons of Anarchy". It has the same moral problems as the Roman Catholic Church and the people in it do. In neither case does anyone want to take responsibility for their actions and/or the consequences of their actions. Both groups live within a moral code that allows them to do whatever they think is right for "The Club". This has been the case for centuries. I have been teaching medieval this term and it just brings the comparison into high relief.

I hadn't thought about that until your comment. Thanks!

When I finally get to the present episodes (I'm close - almost finished Season 5), I think that it will deserve at least a blog or two.

Sheila Redmond said...

Correction: most people come to my blog because the book is unclear to them.

The novel still doesn't ring true to me years later. It is far too contrived to be a good novel - just because the ending is "left up in the air" doesn't mean that it qualifies to be ranked among some the greats in even Canadian literature.

I am not fond of "the Katzanzakis", no matter who writes it or what the subject matter. One of the saddest things for me to have heard is that McIntyre actually talked with priests who thought that he had got it right - tells you a lot about why the church got itself into this mess in the first place.

This is probably my $5 Euros worth!

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