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.
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?”
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.