Be Near MeAndrew O’HaganHarcourt, $24, 320 pp.
This is a very powerful novel, sad and bracing to an equal degree. Andrew O’Hagan tells the story of a fifty-six-year-old Catholic priest in contemporary Scotland whose career and vocation collapse when he yields to an infatuation with a charismatic, punkish teenage boy. The setting is a postindustrial wasteland overlooking the Irish Sea and overlooked by a ruined medieval abbey. All the men seem to be on the dole and in the process of being absorbed by their easy chairs as they watch soccer on Sky TV. Their children drift aimlessly in a drug-induced stupor. Everyone drinks too much. Religion exists largely as a cause of fights, its bitter sectarianism the toxic husk of disintegrated faith. Still with me? The surprise here is that all the squalor and stupefaction is conveyed with such a generous and ironic sympathy, in such constantly inventive prose, and with so bright a response to significant detail that this reader’s experience of it was one of astonished pleasure.
The priest who tells us his story is David Anderton. Born in Scotland but raised in England, he is descended on his English father’s side from actual sixteenth-century recusant martyrs. His primary and secondary schooling takes place at Ampleforth College, an actual Benedictine institution founded in Yorkshire in 1801 and known as “the Catholic Eton.” (Two years ago it was the defendant in several lawsuits alleging pederasty, a fact lightly alluded to in the novel.) Anderton’s university education at Balliol College, Oxford, renders all but invisible the Scottish heritage he takes from his mother, a successful writer of romances, widowed while Anderton is still a child. She is the reason for his star-crossed choice of a parish in Dalgarnock; he wants to be closer to her.
It is at Balliol in the 1960s that he falls in love with Conor, a beautiful young political activist. There is no apparent identity crisis. Anderton’s homosexuality slips on like a familiar coat. His affair with Conor, idyllic and cut short when Conor dies in a car accident, acquires an enduring memorial luster for Anderton. His subsequent vocation to the priesthood is at once an atonement for this episode and a chance to seal it in amber, where it will shine with the closed formality of an A. E. Houseman lyric. From then on, he will be someone else.
But, of course, life does not work that way. Anderton’s life of faith is permanently marked by the words of a favorite monk at Ampleforth. Brother Joseph loves movies, particularly film noir; every Wednesday he shows his boys a film. Why isn’t he “out in the world,” young Anderton asks him, “making films or being an actor?” With his endearing stammer, Brother Joseph responds, “I am an actor.... Being a person of faith...is just like being a m-m-movie actor. Friend of the dark.” We learn that Brother Joseph fell in love with a boy at the school several years later, becoming “one of the names now mentioned in the annals of the unspeakable.”
Assuming a role appeals all too readily to Anderton. “My childhood gave me a strong sense of unreality,” he tells us, “of stories and myths being better than facts. I suppose this made me a natural Catholic but a less than natural person.” Catholicism furnishes the mind not only with good stories but with the movements and maneuvers of theater. Its sacramentalism gives primacy to the act rather than the actor. The sacraments have their effect ex opere operato, simply by being done by the right person in the right way, not ex opere operantis, as a function of his personal holiness. But Anderton begins to consider this to be more “unreality,” the business of an unnatural person with no backstage identity.
He is encouraged in his doubts on all sides. The embittered father of a bride mocks his English (that is, non-Scottish) diction but also makes a deeper point by calling him “Mr. Perhaps.” The bride’s younger sister, one of Anderton’s risky new friends, one day looks at him “as if she hadn’t seen [him] before,” and says, “Father...you’ve wasted your life, haven’t you?” Mark McNulty, the object of his obsession, asks, “Do you really know where you’re living?” Most trenchantly of all, his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, whose cancer gives her the authority of the dying, asks, “Had you any life at all, ever?” and passes judgment: “You sound perfectly natural but you are not natural at all.”
The natural man, the one connected to his childhood and Balliol and Conor, is now the figure that Mrs. Poole finds sprawled on a couch, drunken and drugged, with his arm around the sleeping Mark. When the police arrive, with reporters following, this natural man becomes an opportune target for a communal hatred that was always waiting to be released. When we last see him late Christmas night on a railway bridge, he stands at the reader’s side looking at himself. “I knew this man,” he says of himself, “happy to observe he was nothing much, just another person looking for faith in the cold night air.”
Anderton’s year in Dalgarnock, which is the present time of the narrator, is in constant dialogue with his past so that events from his earlier life come up in response to events that are unfolding as the narrator writes. For example, we learn about Balliol and Conor only when Anderton learns that the police will soon be at his door. This braiding of past with present and the author’s extremely sharp handling of dialogue are two aspects of the artistry that makes Be Near Me so affecting. Having read it, one can find the force of the whole book implicit in any random page.