A priest's struggle with a surprising end

The Baltimore Sun

Be Near Me

By Andrew O'Hagan

Harcourt Inc. / 305 pages / $24

During his first winter in the Scottish town of Dalgarnock, Father David Anderton has a portentous run-in with several men who laugh at him and his "dog collar." They call him "papish scum" and tell him to leave. "Go on," they say. "F- right off." But Father David has been recently named pastor of St. John Ogilvie parish, and he can't go anywhere.

How does an Oxford-educated Roman Catholic priest with champagne tastes survive in a working-class town? It's not easy in Andrew O'Hagan's insightful third novel, Be Near Me.

The final volume of a loosely defined trilogy about life in western Scotland at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, the novel was published in England last year. The first of the three novels, Our Fathers (1999), was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize, and the second, Personality (2003), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Well-received like its predecessors, "Be Near Me" was also considered for the Man Booker award.

As the narrative begins, Father David looks back on a difficult year among some small-minded people, who have a grudge against Roman Catholics. As Father David puts it, "a priest gets used to being respected and sometimes pitied, but never in my life had anyone made me feel so vulnerable and so disliked."

With his propensity for classical music, art and poetry, Father David at first finds himself without companionship except for his bossy housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, who warns him of the dangers posed by the townspeople. She sees Father David as naive, idealistic and sheltered. As she's fond of saying, "You can't expect a priest to know much about life, but at least you've read a couple of books." When Father David's world crashes later in the novel, he turns to his widowed mother, who lives in a nearby city. She is open-minded and artistic; Father David calls her a '60s person before her time.

Father David too is a '60s person. Having gone to college during that decade, Father David smoked pot, protested the Vietnam War and admired truthfulness. Honesty at all costs became his guiding principle. No matter whom it might hurt, Father David wouldn't compromise; he told it like it was. This quality didn't help his popularity even among the clergy. People considered him a snob and avoided him.

So when Father David isn't saying Mass at St. John's or officiating at weddings and funerals, he spends his time working in his rose garden, reading books - among them Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past - and musing about his own past.

Father David's musings can be somewhat longwinded. But they add a sense of mystery to the novel, which helps to carry the story. They also set up this novel's flashback within a flashback structure and give it a confessional and memoir-like quality. As Father David speaks about his past and how it shapes the person he is, he seems to become an actual person as opposed to merely a character.

Readers come to identify and sympathize with him. We learn that his father, a scientist, died of a heart attack, leaving his young son and his wife to provide for themselves. Mother and son relied on each other for friendship. The son became an aesthete taking an interest in literature and ultimately an interest in other young men.

While at Oxford, he had a relationship with Conor, another idealistic, sensitive student who shared his propensity for the arts. When Conor was killed in a car crash, Father David, looking fora place to hide from the world and from his own homosexual urges, joined the priesthood.

A good man but not a particularly devout clergyman, Father David is more interested in secular literature than he is in sacred scripture. In the first parish where he worked as an assistant to the pastor, he was cited for a lack of concern for religious matters and for his standoffish ways. But at St. John's, he's in charge, and he is forced to be more involved in the parish.

Enter Mark and Lisa, two worldly-wise and wild teen-agers whom Father David meets as he teaches in a local parochial school. They consider Father David a diversion from their pursuits of stealing, setting fires, drinking and taking drugs. Their interest is piqued because their parents don't like the priest, who puts on airs. So the kids decide to use Father David as a source of money, transportation and opportunity. Gradually, very gradually, Father David is attracted to Mark, seeing him as a lost part of himself.

When Mark text-messages him, Father David responds, even if it's late at night, even if it interferes with his ability to say Mass the next day. One evening, Father David and Mark get drunk; Mark begins slipping him pills, and under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and loneliness, something happens.

As a result, Father David is arrested; the townspeople brutalize him, and someone (possibly Mark) burns his house. All of which paves the way for the real climax, which is this: Father David can get off. He has a good lawyer who argues convincingly that the priest is innocent, and since everyone knows that the teens are hoodlums and have no credibility, the charges should be dropped. But as Father David sees it, he isn't exactly innocent. Will he take the easy way out? Or will he stand up for his principles, tell the truth, and destroy his career as a religious, while ironically becoming more religious? Will he choose God, or will he choose to keep his job? That's the ultimate question informing this narrative. The startling answer suggests the measure of the man as well as the depth and breadth of this extraordinary novel.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published this year.

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