I like to go into book stores without any idea in mind about what I want to read. Book stores are the ultimate browsing stores.....whether it's the smell, the titles, or the quiet something other worldly exists there for me. I've found that if I go in without any preconceived notions, I usually end up coming out with a book that I didn't expect which teaches me something new. Kind of like life, I suppose.
I've "discovered" some great authors this way. Robertson Davies, Paul Fussel ("Class" a must read), Nelson Algren to name just a few. My whole Russian jag of two years ago was the result of seeing Anna Karenina on the shelf (before Oprah by the way) and thinking, gosh I always meant to read that. AK now stands as my favorite read of all time.
So when I picked up "Father Joe" by Tony Hendra the other day, I just thought it sounded like an interesting read. Lets face it, sub titled "The Man Who Saved My Soul" it tends to suggest that you might be able to learn a thing or two. Happily, I didn't notice the jacket blurb by the excruciatingly emotional Andrew Sullivan:
"Extraordinary, luminescent, profound....I beg you to read this book"
Poor Andy, so talented, and yet so unwilling to trust his talent to just few well chosen words.
Which is a contrast to Mr. Hendra. A veteran of National Lampoon, Lemmings, This is Spinal Tap, Spy Magazine, and no doubt a dozen other legendary comedic troupes, I would have hardly expected him to be such a skilled writer. Of course this is the curse of the comedian in general. One of the most difficult art forms, comedic writing requires an exacting and economic use of the language where every word has a purpose, providing context and moving the reader on to the punch line. Yet few comedians are ever accorded the title of serious artist, and most must move to other "more serious" genres to get the credit that they observe. The same can probably be said about Tony Hendra. How did HE write this book.
With a copious amount of talent would be my response. Hendra's writing is good. Very good. I often found myself stopping to admire his use of language and his skill at communicating some very complex thoughts without writing down to his reader. Instead Hendra uses his talent with language to lucidly relate his story of an incredible man, Father Joe.
Hendra met Father Joe as he says it, "When I was 14 and having an affair with a married woman". A bit of an overstatement, reflecting Hendra's adolescent confusion and exhuberence at the time, although Hendra was indeed caught by the woman's husband with his hand down her skirt. Having been charged with Hendra's Christian education, the man does the only sensible thing; he takes Hendra to a priest.
There begins a life long relationship with a cloistered monk of incredible insight, patience and most remarkably, worldliness. Hendra's life careens from his teenage years when he becomes absolutely convinced that his mission in life is to join the priory as a monk himself, to his early to mid-adulthood when he is an active and angry atheist. Through it all, as life (God?) puts Hendra through a miriad of changes that almost seem divinely guided, Father Joe is his earthly guide who gentlely keeps him on track.
Father Joe spends much time suggesting that Hendra is a selfish man, and reminds him to take time to be "unselfish" and to "listen". The diagnosis really couldn't be more correct. Frankly, for much of the book Hendra is a loathsome character. As a teen he is pious beyond all belief. When he turns away from God, he is a self absorbed jerk who ignores his family, rejects the love of his wife and hates his co-workers. He views those with different political views as evil and is unrelenting (frankly even to this day) in his hatred for them. His anger is palpable, but it is unclear what it is from.
In my view, Hendra's anger, and by extension his loss of faith were due mostly to his disappointment in the short-comings of others. I've often thought that the atheists are in some ways our most pious people; God could only create perfect world, and since man is imperfect, God must not exist. As Hendra experiences his own fall from grace, and embraces his own imperfections he becomes angry that God didn't stop his fall and therefore loses faith.
Years later, through his talks with Father Joe, and after finally hitting a low point, Hendra begins to come back to the church and ultimately finds his true role in life. It is a moving, thoughtful and deeply spiritual story that has meaning for us all.
I should note, that subsequent to the publishing of the book, Hendra's daughter from his first marriage accused him of sexual abuse, an accusation which he has denied. I have no idea whether this is true or not. Regardless of the voracity of her claims, Father Joe is a moving, thoughtful account and I strongly recommend it.