Archive for the ‘MacIntyre, Linden (2)’ Category

Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre

March 26, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Linden MacIntyre has been one of Canada’s best-known television journalists for some time, but he added a new string to his bow in 2009 with the publication of his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. The story of a Cape Breton-born priest who discretely looks after sex scandals in the Church at his bishop’s behest, it won the Giller Prize and became a book club favorite (as the continuing visits to the review on this blog testify).

That novel actually was not about scandals in the Church (and disappointing, if you read it that way) but rather a study of the internal conflicts faced by Father Duncan MacAskill, the bishop’s man of the title. Father Duncan makes a return appearance here (as do a number of other characters) but his internal torments have been put to rest — in this novel, he is quietly going about his work serving the street people of downtown Toronto and emerges as the voice of reason and understanding for the cast of troubled people who populate this book.

The central character here is Duncan’s sister, Effie. She is a world-renowned expert in matters Celtic, apparently comfortably ensconced at work at the University of Toronto and equally comfortable at home in the trendy Annex district just north of the U of T campus. I say “apparently” because beneath the surface, Effie is avoiding dealing with her own versions of the tensions and conflicts that her brother faced in the previous novel.

They are all related to her Cape Breton upbringing, an abusive father, a collection of deaths and suicides — and her three ex-husbands, one now dead and two still living back home in Cape Breton. Those memories start to bubble their way to the surface on the platform of the St. George subway station when she runs into JC Campbell, another Cape Bretoner whom she has not seen in 20 years.

They fell silent briefly. She remembered that he’d taken a job with a television network in the United States. Something about his passport, she recalled; American employers loved the Canadian passport. It travelled better than their own because it was less likely to provoke an inconvenient attitude at certain border crossings. She recalled a drunken farewell party at her house. It was in the Beaches, so yes, it would have been 1977. Twenty years ago, 1977, the year of raised voices, slamming doors, her child cowering underneath the kitchen table. The farewell celebration was a kind of respite.

MacIntyre may be taking a risk in choosing to tell his story through the eyes of a woman (and he doesn’t entirely succeed), but this introduction early in the book also assures us that he is familiar with much of the territory. His own roots are in Cape Breton (his boyhood memoir, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, was itself a best-selling award winner) so he knows the world of farewell parties (for those headed to Toronto or, alternately, headed back to Cape Breton — there is a steady stream going both ways) and frequent trips “back home” to the Nova Scotia island. And that aside about the value of a Canadian passport to journalists covering foreign affairs is testimony to his own experience on that front, so we can be assured that he knows that aspect of JC Campbell’s character.

Effie and JC soon strike up a friendship that turns into a tentative, but growing, affair which produces its own set of positives and negatives. The two may have not seen each other for 20 years but the Cape Breton community is small enough that they have overlapping experiences with many characters, including Effie’s two surviving husbands, the Gillis cousins, Sextus and John. Even before JC and Effie start their relationship, she is aware that the meeting has unearthed carefully-buried, dangerous memories.

Her smugness, she now realized, had come from the certainty that male behaviour could never catch her by surprise again. It was a small reward for all the years she’d spent coping with the turmoil men cause. Father. Brother. Husbands. Live-in partners. Even her neurotic male colleagues at the university. There was no excuse this time. It was entirely her own fault. She could and should have seen it coming. Her brother had disapproved of her renewed relationship with Sextus from the outset, but she really didn’t need a warning. Sextus Gillis had been dazzling and disappointing her since childhood. She dumped a husband for him, eloped and married him, tried to raise a child with him, tried to rise above his infidelities — and eventually threw him out and got over him successfully.

That is very concise summary of what Why Men Lie is about — as well as thumbnail indications of the male characters who populate the book. In the novel, “Why Men Lie” is the title of a memoir/manuscript that Sextus has written and MacIntyre engages in a riff around the title to help explain how all this will play out. The key is in the (maybe missing) punctuation, which the author invites the reader to explore. In addition to the declarative, non-punctuated form, other possible version would include: Why? Men Lie. or Why! Men Lie! or a slightly altered Why Do Men Lie?. Effie, now in her 50s, has experienced all those versions (and relives them in the book) — striking up a relationship with JC both reveals new ones and unearths some old ones. She remembers an exchange with Conor, her deceased husband:

Conor, who had told her up front there are always necessary lies — benevolent deceptions, he would call them. “Everybody has the capacity to lie,” he said. “But the biggest lie is always why we lie.”

Just as The Bishop’s Man examined the inner torment of a conflicted priest, Why Men Lie explores the confused memories of a mature woman and the impact that those revived memories have on her present. MacIntyre puts his journalist experience to good use in describing Toronto, Cape Breton and the world of 1997, but his real interest is in the “why” of what is happening inside Effie’s head. And while his central character may be female, the overriding concern of the book is some punctuated (or non-punctuated) version of “Why men lie”.

For this reader, the author is not entirely successful in delivering on that intriguing premise. Effie’s experiences with Sextus, Jack, Conor, her brother and JC — not to mention a stalker she meets in a coffee shop — all contain hints at answers but I am afraid the men, except for JC, just don’t get fully developed enough to succeed as characters and tend to blur into each other. The result is a literary version of scanning a menu rather than appreciating the meals that it presents.

Having said that, perhaps my problem is that I was too distracted by the contextual elements of the book, elements which MacIntyre handles so well — the academic and journalist world of Toronto, the insular Cape Breton community, the impact of the renewal of decades-old memories, to cite just a few. In a novel meant to explore what lies behind the deficiencies of its cast of characters, I may have ended up paying to much attention to the world that they live in. I’ll wait a few months, but I think a more disciplined second read is in order (and yes, I had to read The Bishop’s Man twice to appreciate it as well).

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

October 2, 2009

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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