Sunday, June 24, 2007

A minister's mercy plea

Andrew O'Hagan is a writer of rare talent. His books teem with characters and aspirations, which in lesser hands may become caricatures drenched in maudlin concerns. But O'Hagan drapes them with an exalted sensation, not dissimilar to the godliness he explores so skillfully in his work. "Be Near Me," his third novel, is another resounding achievement and a fitting addition to his already robust oeuvre.

Consider the opening lines, and you'll have an idea of the beauty O'Hagan blends into his words:

"My mother took an hour out of her romances to cast some light on the surface of things. I was just back from Rome and we stood together on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, watching the sky go black above a warship anchored in the Firth of Forth. Picture that time of day in the old city when the shop windows stand out and the streets of the New Town begin to glow with moral sentiment. She took my arm and we rested like passengers bound for distant lives, warm in our coats and weak in our hearts, the rain falling down on the stone."

This is the story of David Anderton, a lonely church minister who passes his days in a state of sublime grief. Burnished by his passion for the exact turn of phrase, his faith is a cloak with which he has sought to escape life. After the passing of his lover, Conor, in an accident, David retreats to the desolate Ayrshire town of Dalgarnock, a place in a perpetual state of mourning for the loss of its jobs, its culture and a way of life. To his folly, David believes that by running away from himself - the notion of what he used to be - he can escape the past, but as O'Hagan shows, one's past has the insidious quality of always returning, so that everything may end, but the past.

The suave Father David is not well-received by the local community, and he always gets the feeling that he is being tolerated only because of his priesthood. Among his parishioners, only the irreligious teenagers, Mark and Lisa, connect with him at a personal level, reminding him of his youth. There are several scenes where David is shown putting up with what can only be called humiliation, but in the wild antics of the kids, including their boozing and drug exchanging, David discovers a version of himself he thought he had lost.

Things take a turn for the worse when in a moment of weakness, David gets intimate with Mark, leading to allegations of sexual abuse against him. To the reader, these accusations seem bizarre, because O'Hagan draws such a complete portrait of David that one empathizes with his private demons. But for a murderous people scouting out a scapegoat for their misfortunes, a wayward church minister turns out to be the perfect one.

The troublesome thing is David is so removed from the matter of his own life that even the allegations fail to stir him. When the canon lawyer offers the church's support, saying, "The Church has some experience. We will handle things," David simply replies, "I don't want things handled."

This is not egotism on his part, as the church wrongly believes, but a cry for returning to a state of solitude which he had bargained for by sacrificing his life in the name of faith. David's incantation seeking God's mercy, "Be Near Me," is a tangible - almost tactile - plea for comfort against all-encompassing grief. It's to O'Hagan's credit that in spite of a plot that bustles with worldly privations, he has given us a novel that allows us rewarding peeks into the inner lives of its characters.

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From Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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