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).