The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Purchased from Chapters.ca

For all of its isolation and incredible beauty (the Cabot Trail is one of the most stunning drives anywhere), Canada’s Cape Breton Island — population just under 150,000 — has many other claims to fame. Alexander Graham Bell spent much of his working life there on his estate on Bras D’Or Lakes; Marconi sent the first transatlantic message from Cape Breton in 1902. And then there is the tradition of music. Internationally known fiddlers Ashley McIsaac and Natalie MacMaster are only the beginning of a long list of Cape Bretoners who play that instrument with distinction; Rita MacNeil and the Rankin family start off the vocal side.

And then there are the authors, starting with Hugh MacLennan (perhaps better known for his Montreal works). Alistair MacLeod, the chair of this year’s Real Giller Prize jury, has become the modern voice of Cape Breton, with his short stories (collected in Island) and his award-winning novel, No Great Mischief.

giller avatarNow Linden MacIntyre, best-known as one of Canada’s better television journalists as the co-host of the fifth estate, adds his name to that author list, following up his memoir, Causeway, with his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. MacLeod himself said of the memoir:

Causeway explores a world which depicts a certain region of Cape Breton as it was ‘before Canada joined it.’ The book aches with details that are both rational and emotional…MacIntyre is a fine writer.”

I include that blurb because the description applies equally to this novel. It is a book of much despair and misery and “aches with details that are both rational and emotional.”

Father Duncan MacAskill has been re-assigned from a Nova Scotia Catholic university to the rural parish of Creignish near where he was born and raised, just across the Canso Causeway to the island. (Aside: His fictional father is Angus MacAskill — in real life, Angus MacAskill was a legendary Cape Breton giant and circus performer and I can’t believe that repeating the name is not deliberate.) Father MacAskill did not so much consciously choose the priesthood as his vocation as enter it by default:

Isolation? I had, though perhaps imperfectly, mastered celibacy, the institutional denial of the most human of transactions. I was and am, to a degree, excluded from my peer group, my brothers in the priesthood, for complex reasons that will soon become apparent. But at the time I thought that I had discovered an important universal truth: that isolation, willingly embraced, becomes the gift of solitude; that discipline ennobles flesh.

In that evanescent moment of tranquility, I was feeling okay. I see it as another life, the man I was, a stranger now.

All priests are isolated, but as Father Duncan indicates, he is more isolated than most because of his long-time role as the Bishop’s man, called on to deal with the priests who are sexual abusers, drinkers or whatever (the central underlying story thread of the book):

I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic not the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperment and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.

Now, even the university role has become too much. MacIntyre does not take long in letting the reader know (through Father Duncan’s words — the novel is told in the first person, almost as an extended confession) that it isn’t just the discipline that is causing his stress. He is also expected to be part of the cover-up that keeps the scandals hidden; the bishop refuses to even use the word “victims” to describe the abused.

The Bishop’s Man has acquired a somewhat eerie topicality in the last week. The Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia resigned earlier this week after his laptop computer was seized at the Ottawa airport. Earlier this summer, he was responsible for negotiating a $15 million settlement with people who said they were abused by priests as children. He is now facing two charges for possessing and importing child pornography. I live on the other side of the country but I’m pretty sure Cape Breton Island is in the diocese of Antigonish.

Despite that topicality — or perhaps because of it — I found The Bishop’s Man a very difficult book with which to engage. Given that it is about a priest, there is remarkably little religion or spirituality to the book. And while the scandals never go away, they are not even the principal source of Father Duncan’s personal misery. While they set off his contemplation, he discovers in his return to Cape Breton far deeper causes for his uncertainty and discontent.

That includes an abusive father, teenage relationships that rise in the memory and, even more important, thoughts of a previous entanglement during another two-year “respite” stint in Honduras. That introspection leads to alcohol abuse, opening a whole new set of issues.

Part of my difficulty with the book is that Father Duncan’s misery is shared by virtually every secondary character in the book, and there are quite a few of them. Given MacIntyre’s prose style (the examples above are reasonably typical), the litany of depressing events and scenes wears thin, since there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to them. I ended up neither liking nor disliking Father Duncan — he is so completely isolated that even as a reader I could not make contact with his story. I do concede that exploring his misery is MacIntyre’s principal objective and that readers who are more familiar with the church than I am may find more substance and food for thought in this book than I did.

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31 Responses to “The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Blast. Until your “Despite that topicality” paragraph I thought this sounded really promising, what a disappointment.

    It does sound to me like there might be a bit too much in there, a shame as the concept of exploring the psyche of an isolated priest whose job it is to deal with such matters could be very fruitful, but too much tragedy and the effect is lost.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry, Max. I do admit that my journalism background may have left me somewhat jaded about reading novels about priestly sexual abuse. Readers who don’t carry that baggage my find a lot more in this novel than I did.

  3. Trevor Says:

    It sounds very interesting to me. I look forward to rendering my opinion of it if it makes the shortlist.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Despite my grumpy opinion, I would not be surprised at all to see it on the shortlist. The very topicality that got in the way for me is undoubtedly a positive for a lot of readers — and I suspect the jury as well.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It reminds me rather of Irish miserabilism from the description, and to be honest I’d love to see a story involving priests for a change that didn’t involve abuse. It’s getting tired.

    That said, I’m very interested to hear Trevor’s take, an alternative view is always welcome.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      While they are Scots, not Irish, you are on the right track with the miserabilism observation. Particularly when you were not raised in that environment (I’m closer to Alice Munro territory in my early years — and a very wealthy community in puberty), it can get a bit wearing. I too hope Trevor gets to this book because I can’t really tell how much my personal background effected my overall impression.

  6. Arthur from Montreal Says:

    Kevin,
    In following your reviews on the Giller-nominated titles I have seen that even when, as in this case, you have reservations about a book, you state them fair-mindedly and with considerable generosity of spirit. Rare qualities in a book reviewer. I regret that time constraints make it impossible for you to review all twelve longlist nominees, because I would have been glad to learn your opinions on “The Heart Specialist”, by Claire Holden Rothman, which has received some very favorable notices elsewhere. I hope the book makes the shortlist, primarily because I think it’s a fine novel (and I will confess that I am personally close to Claire, so perhaps not entirely objective), but secondarily because that will mean the book gets an appraisal from you. Either way, I thank you for the rigor and enthusiasm you’ve brought to discussions of the Giller candidates.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you, Arthur. Given that a jury of respected writers found these to be the best 12 out of 96, one can only conclude that there must be something to recommend them. While I certainly acknowledge what I feel and what my response is, it seems incumbent to offer a fair explanation of what the author was trying to achieve. And to do my best in being honest about why I reacted the way I did — once other people see and appreciate that (and no one has ever criticized me for it, I must say) they may be able to see why they would respond very differently than I do.

    As for The Heart Specialist it is at my side and will be reviewed whether or not it makes the shortlist. I wanted to separate it somewhat from The Factory Voice since both books seem to promise a study on women making there way into a man’s world — even if they are set half a century (and a couple of wars) apart (at least off the jacket description of Claire’s book). The theme was done very well in Lynes book and I look forward as much to this one. If the snow predicted for Calgary arrives as forecast tonight, tomorrow will definitely be a reading day — I don’t want to post a promise yet but I’m hoping to move The Incident Report ahead a day and post on The Heart Specialist on Monday.

    That will complete eight of twelve (nine counting Trevor’s review of Atwood) before the shortlist is announced. Of the remaining three, I don’t think I’ll be picking up any but the Pullinger unless they make the shortlist — the descriptions and genres suggest they just wouldn’t be to my taste.

  8. Arthur from Montreal Says:

    Eight books read and reviewed in two weeks. You’re a hard worker, Kevin. I look forward to reading your next two pieces – and then your opinions on the short list.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Well, two were read and reviewed well before the announcement. And three of the other five read so far were pretty fast-paced reads.

  10. Kerry Says:

    Interesting review, as always, Kevin. The excerpts you have chosen definitely support your conclusion. A “cleaner” for the Catholic Church could make for a very interesting character, but without some spirituality/religion or without being able to get close to the character, seems like it would be pretty empty unless turned into a thriller. A litany of misery does not sound enjoyable without some engaging idea to make it meaningful (or to explore meaninglessness as a concept).

    I really enjoy the Shadow Jury. Next week should be interesting as we find out the shortlist.

    Oh, and as Arthur, I applaud your hard work and diligence (and prior planning) in getting through the longlist.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Kerry. It has been an interesting Giller year because there is no obvious contender for me (the Michaels I didn’t like and I can’t bring myself to read the Atwood). I’m not going to try to predict the shortlist, although I do hope some of the more “oddball” choices make it that far to add some spice to the debate.

  12. Kerry Says:

    By the way, from your reviews, Valmiki’s Daughter is most intriguing to me. I am strongly considering reading it if it wins, but am waiting to make any Giller contestant decisions until after the Prize and, more importantly, the Shadow Jury award. But, aside from great reviews, you give your readers a rooting interest which could easily turn into book sales. At least, in my case, it likely will.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    From the books I’ve read, I certainly hope to see Valmiki’s Daughter on the shortlist and then you’ll have the benefit of adding Trevor and Alison’s thoughts to your evaluation.

  14. Kerry Says:

    That is exactly what I am hoping, Kevin. Though I am infatuated with the new kid, The Incident Report, right now.

  15. winniemacdonald Says:

    I seriously had some issues with the book the Bishop’s man. Why the odd surnames, cape breton yes, catholic no. The odd smatering of religion or spirituality, do all priests who are sent to south america get tempted by the oposite sex. I know some who remained celibate in the face of tempation…
    was the bishop’s name ever mentioned? fictionous or not….all kinds pf antigonish landmarks alright…I never knew that the bishop’s house was called the palace….all kinds of odd situations. He didn’t stop looking at the lady stella…..oh well he is human it kept telling us…There is nothing in this book new to us lay people….we knew about the coverup long ago.

  16. Rick P Says:

    I finally read The Bishop’s Man and like both the Shadow Giller Jury and actual Giller Jury, I liked it. It’s definitely a good Giller winner. As Kevin’s review points out, it’s a bit pointlessly depressing. I found the middle third dragged a bit.

    Overall, I found it impactful. I grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family on the east coast and have often discussed the abuse visited on innocent victims by certain priests. Most priests and bishops I have met are very moral people motivated by the need to help others. I don’t think this book in any way taints those good people.

    The perspective is the interesting part of this book as Fr. MacAskill has proliferated the problems while being disgusted by them. His remorse and need to atone almost kills him. That is the interesting part of the novel and I think it’s well done.

    Of the last 5 Giller winners, I think Through Black Spruce is still my favourite but this is is definitely 2nd for me.

    Good job Juries!

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks very much for your thoughts, Rick — I agree with every one of them. It is not an easy work, but I to think a very impressive one.

  18. Kath Says:

    I just finished reading this book for our monthly bookclub.

    I came to this book with previous baggage as I lived in Antigonish and have been subjected to the religious opinions of the Catholic church.

    However, I thoroughly enjoyed (I was pleasantly surprised with the novel) it. I specifically liked the humanity of Father MacAskill’s character and his admonishment that priests are also human. I felt drawn to Father MacAskill as he desperately wanted to be loved. His father couldn’t love him, the Bishop did than betrayed him, and Jacinta loved him but it was forbidden. That is a lot of disappointment and loss of loss for one person. Compassion people, you don’t have to be religious to understand that emotion.

    It took me awhile to get used to the flashbacks, yet they worked for this book. The pace of the novel increased wonderfully. It symbolized Father MacAskill’s life (crumbling than evolving) and his desperation (in a sense) to understand the internal and external forces around him. It is poignant.

    I did not see this book as deeply religious or solely about the Catholic church (thank goodness). It is about men who have put too much faith in an institution that is archaic in values and beliefs. In the end, they are only men defined by a religion that has lost its purpose. It is sad.

    It was a beautiful piece of literature that examines the human pysche. Bravo! If I could, I’d use it in my English Lit class.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kath: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is easy to get preoccupied with the Church — and end up missing what this book is really about. The Bishop’s Man is above all the study of a very interesting (and understandably disturbed) character and I think the author does an excellent job of bringing him to life.

  20. Ruth Seeley Says:

    You know, I came to The Bishop’s Man with very low expectations and was, frankly, blown away by a couple of things. First was the audacity of tackling subject matter like this – something that needed to be done. Much to my surprise, MacIntyre did the tackling with an extremely deft and, at the same time, eyes wide open, extremely dispassionate approach. Second, the quality of the writing itself – I know some other reviewers disliked the flashbacks and found them hard to follow. I thought it was some of the best flashback writing I’d ever read.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Glad you liked it, Ruth. I must say it is a novel that improves with time.

  22. LINDA DUFF Says:

    Thanks…I really had a problem with the characters of this book…they
    seemed detached to me…I couldn’t relate to them on most levels. I am disappointed with the book and thought it would be so much more given who wrote it and that it won the Giller prize…but then I’m generally disapponted with the books who win the Giller. Just because a literary prize is one does not make the book a winner.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Linda: I had some trouble keeping track of the characters as well — it did take me two readings to appreciate them and I agree that “detached” applies to some of them.

    Unlike you, I find the Giller winners to usually be of a very high standard. I have read them all and would only find a couple wanting. All of which probably means nothing more than that Giller juries and I tend to have similar tastes.

  24. rickp Says:

    I haven’t yet read all the Giller winners and haven’t been able to get this year’s winner. Of the 6 years before this year, I thought highly of 3 (The Bishop’s Man, Through Black Spruce, Runaway), was okay with 1 (The Time In Between) and didn’t care for 2 (Late Nights On Air, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures). Additionally, the 1995 winner, A Fine Balance, is one of my all time favourites.

    I think Giller has a pretty good record and I’ve liked Giller winners more than most Booker winners in recent years.

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I’d agree with your assessment, with the only difference being that I liked Late Nights on Air. And A Fine Balance is still my favorite novel. I am not a fan of The Polished Hoe and also feel that A Good House was not up to the standard of other winners. So overall for me, not a bad record.

  26. dovegreyreader Says:

    Finally this has plopped into the postbox!

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: Good luck with it! I can tell from search terms that are producing hits on this post that it is a book club favorite (for choosing, perhaps not after reading) right now.

  28. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Kevin, I read this book because it hit your “Best of” list, and you haven’t steered me wrong yet. There is so much to say about this book–but what struck me is that it is a deeply psychological novel, taking the reader on an uneasy journey covering a lot of ground–guilt, shame, responsibility, secrets. Which parts of our history shape our choices and ultimately our identities. How we remember and how that becomes our “reality.” Suppressed memories forcing their way to become part of that reality. And much more.

    I found the writing very atmospheric–perfect choice for a winter’s read–and I look forward to reading more of this author. I kept thinking about Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending while I was reading it…memories, truth, unreliable narrator confessing, questions left unanswered…but I think this book is more satisfying than Barnes’.

    Question for you: what are some of your favorite novels of all times?

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I am heartened that you liked the novel — as you can tell from some of the previous comments, there are some readers who think McIntyre was too hard on the Church. I am agreement with your comments because I think the novel is much more about Duncan than it is about the Church — your comparisons with The Sense of an Ending are quite appropriate.

    I know you organize reading for book clubs and can report from my experience with the blog that this is a Canadian book club favorite. Since starting the blog, The Bishop’s Man ranks third in hits, after Duddy Kravitz (which features on a number of Can-lit courses and attracts student interest) and Emma Donoghue’s Room, another one that attracts a lot of book club interest. I made my 333rd post today, so those three are obviously the cream in terms of attracting attention.

    If I ever did a list of favorite novels of all time, it would take a long time and be a very long list. A few years back, I did do a “10 books for the island” list on the Indigo community site — link is http://community.indigo.ca/toptens/Best-books-ever-for-island-Kevin-Peterson/492967.html — and it holds up very well as a reflection of my “classical” tastes with a few modern titles included. And of course I have published “top 10 lists” for the last two years which you can link to on the sidebar — the 2011 version will go up in a few weeks.

  30. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    Thanks for all this info, Kevin. One of my more popular book groups is my Jane Austen Literary Salon, and one of my favorite books is Atonement–so now I see why you have yet to steer me wrong! I will look forward to your Best of 2011 list…

    And as for The Bishop’s Man being about the Church–well, I suppose one can focus on that part of it, but I think one should view the Church in this case as a stand-in for any institution that asks an individual to subordinate his or her own identity and values to that of the institution.

    The more I think about this book, the more I realize there is to think about…Thanks for bringing it to my attention with your Best of 2009 list.

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