Daniel M. MurtaughAugust 6, 2007 - 9:04am0 comments
Be Near Me
Harcourt, $24, 320 pp.
This is a very powerful novel, sad and bracing to an equal degree. Andrew O’Hagan tells the story of a fifty-six-year-old Catholic priest in contemporary Scotland whose career and vocation collapse when he yields to an infatuation with a charismatic, punkish teenage boy. The setting is a postindustrial wasteland overlooking the Irish Sea and overlooked by a ruined medieval abbey. All the men seem to be on the dole and in the process of being absorbed by their easy chairs as they watch soccer on Sky TV. Their children drift aimlessly in a drug-induced stupor. Everyone drinks too much. Religion exists largely as a cause of fights, its bitter sectarianism the toxic husk of disintegrated faith. Still with me? The surprise here is that all the squalor and stupefaction is conveyed with such a generous and ironic sympathy, in such constantly inventive prose, and with so bright a response to significant detail that this reader’s experience of it was one of astonished pleasure.
The priest who tells us his story is David Anderton. Born in Scotland but raised in England, he is descended on his English father’s side from actual sixteenth-century recusant martyrs. His primary and secondary schooling takes place at Ampleforth College, an actual Benedictine institution founded in Yorkshire in 1801 and known as “the Catholic Eton.” (Two years ago it was the defendant in several lawsuits alleging pederasty, a fact lightly...