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The Bishop's Man
By Linden MacIntyre
Random House Canada, 416 pages, $32
Linden MacIntyre, one of Canada's most distinguished broadcast journalists, has used his considerable skill at truth-telling to weave a literary novel that is both entertaining and compelling.
Early in his vocation, Father Duncan MacAskill, the bishop's man of the book's title, showed an unusual ability to calm troubled waters.
During his early years in the priesthood, he was sent to investigate allegations and ultimately to rid the Church of members guilty of misconduct.
Now, approaching middle age, he is thrust back into the small Cape Breton community where he was raised in order to minister to a somewhat neglected congregation.
Warming to his new role as parish priest, MacAskill is distraught when a young member of the congregation commits suicide amid rumours that the troubled boy was a victim of one of the priests MacAskill had investigated.
With a nagging sense that his role as an enforcer for the last few decades has been nothing more than a sham, MacAskill's own demons begin to haunt him.
MacIntyre's taut first-person narrative and seamless flashbacks are, as in his previous novel The Long Stretch (1999) and his boyhood memoir Causeway (2007), interspersed with flawless dialogue that captures the essence of each of the story's rich characters.
From the strong but emotionally damaged sister Effie, to the Jacinta of MacAskill's memory, to cynical Sextus Gillis and his cousin John who were the focus of the previous novel, MacIntyre weaves a mottled tapestry of then and now. It allows the reader glimpses into a community's troubled past and the priesthood's changing reality.
In some ways MacAskill is not unlike Father Rivas of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, though MacAskill is, shall we say, a much better person.
And he isn't nearly as dangerous to himself as Pinky from Greene's Brighton Rock. Yet neither suffers the same depth of faith anguish that MacAskill does.
The Catholic Church hovers in the background as a subtle but ever-present character. Avoiding both judgment and apology, MacIntyre portrays her as a character whose true nature is mutable.
To the bishop, she is a sovereign mechanism set up to maintain power; to the parishioners, a loving mother intent on improving the lives of her children; and to MacAskill, a revered institution whose deficiencies he is only beginning to understand.
He sums up his growing realization of the isolation and loneliness of his vocation as he stands in the church doorway after mass one Sunday:
"Something about my house made me want to linger in the creaking church, where there were still traces of living humanity. My house, a dead place compared to this and the living storm outside."
And later, observing small children preparing for their First Communion, he projects his own uncertainty when he muses: "I wanted to warn them of the stress that comes with progress, that they'll never wear the faith so easily again. The cruel paradox of faith: with each sacrament, there are new questions and fewer answers. Growth and curiosity, the elements of crisis."
Former host of CBC's The Fifth Estate and a producer at The Journal, MacIntyre is familiar with controversial subjects.
Over the course of his broadcast career, he garnered multiple awards, among them nine Geminis and even a U.S. Pulitzer Prize, for his courageous journalistic investigations.
It comes as no surprise that he can use such sensitivity and skill to deal with an issue as disturbing as sexual abuse among the clergy.
The Bishop's Man is, in tone and treatment, somewhat reminiscent of Morris L. West's ecumenical novel The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), but with a decidedly more down-to-earth main character.
In Father MacAskill, MacIntyre gives us a Christian anti-hero, a man of faith who is first of all a man, in a story that meshes humour and down-home charm with the raw underbelly of human imperfection.
Angela Narth is a Winnipeg writer.