Linden MacIntyre: The Bishop’s Man

And so this reader comes to the end of the Giller shortlist, a journey I much enjoyed, even if some of the stops were not as pleasing as others.  After venturing to Egypt, Cambodia, and ancient Macedon for the previous three Giller shortlisted titles, The Bishop’s Man (2009) brings us back to Canada, which is a fitting way to end one of Canada’s great literary prizes.

Copy courtesy of KevinfromCanada.

Copy courtesy of KevinfromCanada.

Though this book brings me back to Canada, the locale is no more familiar to me than, say, Egypt.  (I hope I don’t muddle it up by my lack of familiarity).  It takes place in Creignish, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, by the descriptions and tone of the book, a stunning and sobering isolated area.  Our narrator is a priest, Father Duncan MacAskill.  He is the Bishop’s man.  In other words, in the last twenty years, whenever there has been a problem with a fellow priest, the Bishop sends Father MacAskill to handle the problem with speed and discretion.  Father MacAskill’s voice is a nice mixture of hope and melancholy, and I enjoyed that combination as MacAskill himself leaned one way or the other throughout the book.  Here is the mixture shown in the first paragraph of the novel:

The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape.  I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty.  If anything, I was healthier.  The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals at home.

As the book starts, Father MacAskill has been called in to see the Bishop.  Unsure what is to come, he is surprised when he is assigned to preside at a small parish near where he grew up in Creignish.  It’s disorienting but also a relief to settle into some work other than calling on lapsed priests.  It is especially comforting at this time in the Church’s history, when scandals of the priesthood have broken out, particularly in Boston.  However, though this parish job means Father MacAskill can rest for a bit, he suspects correctly that the Bishop’s motives are more complex.  The Bishop mentions vicarious liability, and Father MacAskill realizes he’s being put away in a secret place to protect the Church.  If his role of discreetly sending lapsed priests to rehabilitation and then back to some parish were found, in this day and age when the priesthood is not respected, it could be another disaster for the Church.

All of this leads to a nicely set-up personal crisis.  On the surface, the primary issue is sexual abuse among the priesthood.  Father MacAskill’s first encounter with this — he actually walks in on a venerate priest, one of his mentors – got him exiled to South America because no one believed him, especially not the Bishop.  No one appreciated his allegations.  They were just looking for a pen under the desk, they said.  A strong current in the novel, then, is the sexual abuse that seemed to be popping up everywhere in the nineties.  Father MacAskill, since his return from Central America, has spent the last twenty years helping the Bishop discreetly clean up any other “lapses.”  These scandals, however, are used to analyze other issues, subtly:

I sat in the car for a long time before leaving.  What is it that attracts the Bells?  Priest of old were father figures.  What happened?  

Bell once told me with confidence: “People will see whatever they need a priest to be.  Father, saviour, coach, ombudsman, shrink.  Lover, even.  Now that people don’t really need priests, they don’t see us at all.” 

“You’re saying we’re obsolete,” I said.

“More like invisible.”

“So why did you become a priest?” 

He shrugged.  “Limited career options.  Infantile piety.  Need to please.  Who knows?”

“Or invisibility?”

I thought the jibe would bring him down.

“That too,” he said, and smiled.

That’s one of the great strengths of this novel: MacIntyre, instead of writing a novel to showcase the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, uses those scandals as a springboard to analyse other, perhaps deeper issues.  Furthermore, though the sexual abuse is a central theme, it is not the center of the story — thankfully, Father MacAskill is.  It’s his life we’re looking at, his struggles, his character.  His struggles with an abusive father, with loneliness, with his own vicarious liability, with alcoholism (“They say drinking alone is a bad sign.  But what if you’re always alone?  What if solitude is the norm?”).  This is entirely a character driven novel, my favorite type.  The other issues are there, and dealt with with care, but this is not MacIntyre building a prop character in order to sermonize, which I felt was the case, unfortunately, in Kim Echlin’s still thought-provoking The Disappeared.  Father MacAskill, with all of his hope and melancholy, remains ambiguous to us as well as to himself, allowing us to delve into the issues ourselves.

This book assumes its weight through time.  It’s hard to pull out key quotes.  Here is one, however, which speaks to just that point:

Viewing everything in hindsight, the next five months acquire their meaning through a series of banal events.  March 25, 1996, was the day my life began assuming what I expect will be its final shape.

To me these banal events are never treated as such by MacIntyre.  As the book builds, each event is burdened more and more by the past as we come to know it.  I didn’t expect much from this book.  I thought it would be a diatribe about sexual abuse among Catholic priests, one where the main character was saddled with guilt and nostalgia for a more innocent but nonexistent time.  What I find, instead, is an incredibly well structured, beleivable character study where each discrete issue could be incidental though in their totality they bring this priest to brink.

22 thoughts on “Linden MacIntyre: The Bishop’s Man

  1. Trevor says:

    My apologies to those of you who came here and found this post in draft form. Last night, after pulling some quotes and jotting some ideas down, I clicked on “publish” instead of “save post.” I then walked away and let the dirty thing sit there for hours! Worst yet, this is the second time in the past 30 days that I’ve done this. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson :).

  2. winnie macdonald says:

    people settled in cape breton in family and religious patterns….macaskills were protestants, as were macvicars. why did the writer do this…..as for the rest of the characters, the man sextus….who ever heard of that given name…not in cape breton. Linden makes a vague at keeping with the scotttish culture with the name danny ban….I found the book deserves a second read. very confusing, but nothing is revealed that we didn’t already know.

  3. Trevor says:

    Winnie, I definitely cannot answer your questions. I know next to nothing about Cape Breton, the nonexistence of certain names, or the religions associated with certain surnames. I’d love to get some opinions here, though, if there were a literary purpose for going against fact. The name Sextus pops up in other books about Cape Breton by Linden MacIntyre, so if it’s purely literary, I think MacIntyre has some purpose or associates the name with something he wants to convey. That or he knows a few people named Sextus in Cape Breton. The journalist that he is, and the background in Cape Breton that he has, I find it hard to believe he’d be sloppy here if it is conventional wisdom such things are factually inconsistent.

    I do agree that nothing is revealed that we didn’t already know with regards to the Catholic Church’s scandals, but to me it was the manner of the revelation here — the characters, the psychology, the mixture with growing old and disillustioned — that made the book intriguing. If you give it (or already gave it) the second read, I look forward to more ellaboration :) .

  4. ann says:

    If Linden MacIntyre were not famous, this book would be left on the shelf at some second hand bookstore.

    Disappointing – mundane writing and so confusingly written that one can hardly keep track of the main character. So many time lines, so many places, all mixed together in a poorly written book by a famous man.

    Canadian authors are wonderfully talented as a whole. For this book to be given any kind of prize or recognizition is similar to Obama’s peace medal – too much for too little.

  5. Trevor says:

    I appreciate your views, Ann. You may be right that he won this prize only because he is famous. But that is not the only thing this book has going for it. He didn’t get my praise because he’s famous because before reading this book I had no idea who MacIntyre was. I still know him only for this book, which I found to be quite exceptional. I still think it impressive how he managed to keep the focus on the main character despite the overwheliming nature of the subject matter. It is not the best written in terms of sentence-by-sentence grace, but nor is it overwritten or confounded. Now, we can agree on Obama’s Nobel Prize, at least ;).

  6. Ann says:

    Thanks appreciate your comments.

    In my opinion, it raises the question as to why there is such a lack of exposure to the spiritual soul of this main character — a man, the priest, who dedicated his life in the service of Christ?

    A spiritual soul that should have been shocked, horrified at the outrageous actions of fellow humans, whether they be priests or lay people.

    There seems to be a poverty of basic human character traits, of any human values, and, in that, it is empty and shallow. I wouldn’t want to know any of the book characters nor would I would to embrace them into my life, even as fictional characters from a book.

    My impression is this book is a waste of precious time. Awards are subjective.

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks so much for your comments here Ann. I enjoy engaging in discussion about the books I read and review, in particular, it seems, with those who don’t hold my opinion. I hope people will put up with me while I ramble on, even if it is against their opinion.

    In my opinion, it raises the question as to why there is such a lack of exposure to the spiritual soul of this main character — a man, the priest, who dedicated his life in the service of Christ?

    Ann, I think you’ve indicated exactly what intrigued me so much about the book: what is the spirituality of this priest? His conflicted spirituality — or lack thereof — was exactly what sucked me in. And that’s what I mean when I say this is a great book because it remains focused on Father MacAskill and not on the sexual abuse which in other hands would have over-saturated the book — such a technical feat must have been incredibly difficult to accomplish.

    So with all of his faults, Father MacAskill might not be the most appealing mind to life with, even if for only a few hours of reading fiction. But I don’t see highlighting such a faulty character (even if he exemplified a povery of human values — which I don’t accept) as being a problem. There certainly were several priests throughout this affair (and many other affairs) who did and felt exactly as he did, conflicted by the idea that the Church’s leadership was protecting friends rather than the community but also conflicted because of the Church’s inherent authority. Worse, some priests who dedicated their lives to the service of Christ surely didn’t even care about on a human level. It is ugly. I found his conflicted, suicidal, disillusioned, despairing, faithless/faithful, guilt-ridden soul painfully intriguing to explore. And even better when we can also turn the lens from the book’s subject to our community or even to ourselves.

  8. Ann says:

    This book is a work of fiction.

    In reality, we have seen the complex workings of a dictatorship religion; resulting in trails of wrecked lives and misplaced shame on the innocent.

    However this book is a dark fictional disjointed attempt at understanding (or, excusing??) these religious criminals because of despair, depression, confusion, or lack of what one would hope to be basic human values.

    Of minor significance is the language does not move fluidly – perhaps that would have helped somewhat.

    Do you have any opinions on the other books that ‘might’ have won had this book not been in the right place at the right time?

  9. It is worth noting that all three of us on the Shadow Giller Jury had The Bishop’s Man as our first choice. While I admit that it took me two readings to appreciate the book, it was definitely my pick after that second reading. As I noted in my review after my first reading, “Father MacAskill did not so much consciously choose the priesthood as enter it by default.” I did not find the novel to be principally about the Church or even some of the ignoble characters in it, but rather a study of a character who found himself in a situation that was beyond both his control and ability to cope. And it is certainly worth noting that he reacts with — and to — a number of people in Cape Breton who have little to do with the church. The fact that the three authors from three different countries on the Real Jury reached the same conclusion on the winner would seem to me to indicate that it is a reasonable and worthy choice.

    MacIntyre’s reputation as a television journalist probably did him more harm than good, if you are looking for that as part of a conspiracy. He works for the CBC — the Giller is sponsored, promoted and broadcast by their competitor, CTV, and you could tell the CTV types were gritting their teeth when his name was announced. A bias line that I would have found had more appeal is that Alistair Macleod, the jury chair, is THE chronicler of Cape Breton and had contributed a cover blurb to MacIntyre’s earlier memoir of growing up in Cape Breton, where the novel is also set. Interestingly, I didn’t see anybody raise that issue in commentary after the decision — even though the blurb was on the cover of original editions of The Bishop’s Man.

    As for alternative choices, it is true that most of the daily press regarded MacIntyre as a surprise winner. In the pre-Giller coverage, I saw choices for everything but Fall (the other shortlist books were The Golden Mean, The Winter Vault and The Disappeared</em.). I'd say The Golden Mean was a mild favorite with professional critics (it would have been my second choice from the shortlist); the online Giller contest had The Winter Vault on top.

    And I would offer the prediction that we would not be having this exchange at all if Alice Munro had not withdrawn Too Much Happiness from the competition. In today’s Globe and Mail a collection of Canadian literary worthies offered their book of the decade — Munro’s was the only 2009 novel to get mentioned and it was mentioned twice. (Cormac McCarthy got three mentions for The Road and David Mitchell two for Cloud Atlas as the only other multiple fiction mentions.)

  10. Trevor says:

    Do you have any opinions on the other books that ‘might’ have won had this book not been in the right place at the right time?

    You bet, Ann! If you click on the “Giller 2009″ link at the top of this post you’ll see my thoughts on all of the books that made the shortlist as well as Margaret Atwood’s awful contender and Andrew Crummy’s fable that didn’t make the longlist. For more looks at them shortlist as well as several other Canadian books of 2009, see KevinfromCanada’s page, which you can access by clicking on his name in his comment above or on my sidebar. Sorry, I’d put the links in this comment but I’m away from a computer right now.

    Let me know your pick!

  11. anami says:

    I need to know more about the character William. I had to go back and skim…and I still feel like I don’t really understand who he was.

  12. Julie says:

    I’m am confused as to what happened in Honhuras. Did Father MacAskill have an affair with Jacinta.

  13. Tom Osborne says:

    Like some other readers, I found the book very confusing. I didn’t fully appreciate who was William. I was constantly trying to fathom what happened in Honduras.
    Going back to past events in the midst of something currently taking place was frustrating to say the least. I am familiar with the area around Creignish and the depiction of culture and social life was well done.

  14. Mary says:

    I saved this book to read on vacation in the south last week, and was very disappointed. I started counting the number of times a line saying or alluding “this will all be explained later” came up and got frustrated after I got to 6. McIntyre is trying too hard to build suspense, and then doens’t come through. I found the ending very weak, didn’t live up to the author’s previous hype. If this is the best Canada had to offer in 2009, we need some new writrs. I also just read Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories — so superior to McIntyre.

  15. Trevor says:

    I haven’t responded to these last comments because I hadn’t thought of anything to say, not because I haven’t wanted to or because I felt they were invalid. As you can see, I enjoyed the book, felt it was well constructed, and that it deserved the prize given the other options — though it’s merit, to me, wasn’t solely based on my valuation of it in relation to the other shortlisted titles; I felt it was genuinely good. I might have missed many elements, but the book never confused me; I thought it was well structured and thankfully got away from the affair in South America just when it would have started to become tedious to me. As for what some have considered to be an ingenuine structure (not always clear what was going on in Honduras, always alluding to a forthcoming explanation, etc.), I accepted these moments because I felt the narrator was believable, that he really wouldn’t want to bring the unpleasant ghosts of the past to clear light. I hate artificial structuring that is there only to build suspense, but it worked for me here because it also built the character. It wasn’t that he wasn’t being forthcoming to the reader — he wasn’t being forthcoming with himself. I quickly forgave what would have been a fatal flaw in a work with a less interesting narrator.

    You probably knew this, Mary, but Alice Munro voluntarily withdrew her book of stories from the contest, or it almost certainly would have won. I’ve been working my way through her book, and it is a marvel.

  16. Alison says:

    Interesting how the story shifts from male sexual abuse to laying blame on Stella and Jessie for keeping Danny’s secret. Let’s blame the women!!

  17. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure I can follow you there, Alison. I don’t think MacIntyre ever suggests that because others’ handling the situation poorly (and not just the women, but the priest and the Bishop themselves) excuses the initial conduct at all. I see no shift in blame and I see no concept of “sharing” the blame. I don’t think this book is so easily dismissed.

  18. Tim says:

    This book seemed to illustrate the fact that we all lose our innocence to one degree or another as we live…the main character is asked to clean up after men who have performed heinous acts, yet he himself has fallen far short of ideal behaviour. The personal flaws which seem at times to completely overwhelm him complicate his work. he is working for a bishop whose practice of “situational ethics” seems quite inappropriate for one in such a position of moral leadership.
    I thought the book was well written, very “real”, and thought provoking.

  19. Trevor says:

    Tim, I was beginning to wonder if the real and shadow Giller juries were the only readers of this book who found it worthwhile. Glad you felt so too!

    Interestingly, with some books when so many others seem to dislike them, sometimes I question my judgment. That hasn’t been the case here.

  20. I expected more from Lyndon MacIntyre. I felt a real disconnect between the place and time of the novel and the present – an inability to suspend my disbelief and enter into the motivation and feelings of the characters. I found the writing style tedious and the characters pathetic. Are we supposes to sympathise and excuse these characters because of their weaknesses? No. This is not a novel worthy of greatness. If you tell someone that something is good over and over again, they will believe it.

  21. Trevor says:

    Hi Dianne, we obviously had different experiences with this book. I had a few questions for you though, as I’m not quite understanding your criticism of the book.

    I can’t quite understand what you mean by “present” when you say “you felt a real disconnect between the place and time of the novel and the present.” I’m not from Cape Breton, but I know people who are and people who have read this book who think the novel does a pretty good job of it. Do you mean present-day Cape Breton is not like it is presented in the book?

    To push again, I don’t know what you mean when you say, “Are we supposed to sympathise and excuse these characters because of their weaknesses? No.” I agree. Are you suggesting the novelist is asking us to? It’s been nearly two years since I read it, but I know I didn’t get that impression.

    Lastly, what do you mean by this: “If you tell someone that something is good over and over again, they will believe it.” The novel? The characters? Am I the guilty party?

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