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.
Now 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.