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Be Near Me

by Andrew O'Hagan (Harcourt, 2006/7)

Be Near Me, Andrew O'Hagan's new novel (Harcourt, 2006/7), is the story of an Oxford-educated parish priest whose life silently falls apart in a middling town on the Ayrshire coast. He is ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting a minor. What threatens to be a sordid cliché, however, gleams in Mr O'Hagan's superb telling. This triumph of muted radiance defies conventions at every turn and delivers a portrait that is not only human but humanist.

The amazing thing is that David Anderton's life has held up for more than thirty years - but such is the gravitational force of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. A man from an old English Catholic family, schooled at Ampleforth before Oxford, and naturally pious might easily find sanctuary within its walls. It is one thing to seek sanctuary, however, and another to become a dynamic worker for the Church. This, it seems, David has never done. Narrating his story in a quiet, somewhat detached voice, he can speak beautifully, but not passionately, about his experiences. He has devoted his life to behaving well, and in the process, he has put himself to sleep. He is awakened, in a classroom on Good Friday, by a fifteen year-old scamp called Mark. It is not Mark's youthful beauty that awakens David, but his anarchy.

During my time in Dalgarnock, it had begun to cling to me: not faithlessness, which I haven't suffered since leaving Oxford, but a large private sense of wanting to depart from the person I had always been. I could see it happening: one sort of world was colliding with another, and that evening I wanted to join their world and embrace their carelessness. That's what I wanted to do. I wish I could say I knew their kind and beheld all my errors, but what I knew about that pair, Mark and Lisa, was only what I wanted to know. They were very young and ready for life.

David's "old" life is embodied by his housekeeper, a sharp but kind forty-two year-old woman who is keen on self-improvement. She admires Father David, as she calls him, even though she has taken his risk-averse measure. Mrs Poole is dying, young though she is, of two kinds of cancer, and her very Christian death has a valor that inspires David and lights up the novel. Mrs Poole is also witness to the collision of worlds, when, very early one Sunday morning, she opens David's sitting-room door to find him stretched out on the couch with Mark.

As carnal encounters go, this one is fairly chaste, no more than a kiss. No clothing has been removed. Mark is neither offended nor annoyed. But the presence of Mrs Poole, even though no one in the town is more sympathetic to David, heralds disaster for the priest. He has put himself in the hands of an opportunistic child, and now the child has a witness. The walk that will take David along his own via crucis for most of the rest of the book begins in short order, but, as David is the narrator, there is nothing hasty or frightened about his account. The townspeople, Catholic and Protestant alike, unite in their dislike of the English priest. A friendly bishop is put off by David's disobedience. David refuses to help himself.

It is now that we learn, as best he can tell us, what went wrong in David's life at Oxford. It's very simple, really: the love of his life, a fellow student called Conor fell asleep at the wheel while driving in the Chiltern Hills. Some of the most beautiful writing anywhere appears in the chapter called "Balliol," but the great romance is covered with an almost painful discretion. It is eventually made clear that Conor and David were lovers in the most complete sense of the term, but aside from a few glancing passages such as this -

He turned to rub his shoulder, and seeing his hand on his jacket, I suddenly wanted to be his jacket or be the cotton of his shirt.

David's feelings about Conor are generalized. The specifics are none of our business.

Men had a sense of danger about these things. You had to have: homosexuality was not yet legal for people our age. It is not often said, but the need for discretion suited some of us perfectly. It certainly suited Conor and me, the idea that privacy was not just a survival requirement but something quite central to what we had. I've seen men holding hands in the years since and wondered if something wasn't lost by what they gained. Maybe not. We found it easy to outwit the law because our own law called for caution.

It is with a paragraph such as this that one begins to appreciate the challenge of Mr O'Hagan's ambitious project, which is to make us care about a man who is probably not worth caring about because he will never really share himself. Perhaps David does not believe that sharing is possible, much less desirable; but fiction, if it is not to be rebarbative, must enlist the sympathies of its readers. Mr O'Hagan might, it occurred to me more than once, have created a more naturally successful novel by narrating the story himself, showing David as others see him while remaining privy to his thoughts. But this would be less daring, and, besides, we're told what people see in David. Twice in the course of the novel - quite aside from his trial - David is physically humiliated by others, or at least the attempt is made. David is surprised both times. He is not self-absorbed so much as wrapped up in another world. It is a world of ecclesiastical appearance but hidden substance.

Be Near Me gives us a man who makes a shroud for his love out of the Church itself, and who then wears it until he can no longer bear to stand up in it. He is drawn to Mark McNulty because Mark is vivid about engaging life; David himself is clueless on a grand scale. In a telephone conversation with his bishop that amounts to David's confession - he is not guilty of assaulting Mark, but he is guilty of using the Church as "a beautiful hiding place," the bishop confronts him with an ugly bit of information.

"I took a chance bringing you to this diocese. I went against advice to bring you from England. You know what, David: the Bishop of Lancaster gave you a questionable reference. He said you'd spent twenty years being an excellent administrator and a poor pastor. He said you'd organised a cabal - that was his word - of classical-music lovers and wine tasters. Wine tasters! That's what your ministry consisted of in the mind of your Bishop."

"So why didn't he fire me?"

"For the same reasons I didn't," he said. "Because he thought you were intelligent and because we're short of priests."

"I'm grateful."

"No," he said, "God strengthen us. I don't think you are."

And the bishop is quite right: David is not grateful. Yet we care about him and his broken life. He may be a bad priest, but he is a good man. He may keep too much to himself, but we have been shown the wound. Conor was a political activist; David was more interested debating changes in the Church with the Dominicans at Blackfriars. That didn't bother Conor.

He never tried to talk me out of it. Conor was too gracious in his handsome bones for that. He joked about religion, but he must have understood the impulse somewhere, for salvation was his great theme too: we each yearned for peace and unity, like the peace and unity we had made for ourselves out of our mad differences. I loved Conor: that is the central matter in all this. In a sense, my story ends at the point where it may appear to begin, for when he put his hand through my hair and held the back of my head and kissed me, I knew I had found answer to the question of how to live and what to do.

The story comes to rest on Christmas Day, in Mrs Poole's sitting room. The good woman has died, but Jack Poole, her husband, has extended hospitality to the former priest of whom she thought so much. The scene is as unafraid of embarrassment as an extraordinary short story. David lumbers through the dinner with his modest but perfectly articulate English, unable to connect, on the linguistic level, with Jack's Scottish vernacular. David is very pleased with himself for bringing along a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem, and pleased as well that its glory is not lost on Jack. From a normal perspective, the two men are as lonely together as they would be apart. But Andrew O'Hagan has infused his prose with a beatitude that brings everything, and everyone, together.

One's life is full of rooms, and that one will always remain to me as a cell of passing warmth, the dust already settling, the memory of the man's wife now an animating feature in the continuing life of the house and the feelings of the man who still made his home there.

We see that, in the end, David's life has broken in order to give him the chance to refashion it, and this time, we feel, he will live. (August 2007)

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