Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Edge of Sadness

My second installment in this trilogy devoted to Books About Priests, is Edwin O'Connor's, The Edge of Sadness. Even the title should warn you that this book is not for everyone. But if you are the type of reader who enjoys psychological mysteries, then I think you will find this study of the priesthood fascinating.

The Edge of Sadness is 646 pages of mostly thought and dialogue which spans the relatively brief time span of six months, occasionally taking retrospective forays back into the lifetime friendship of two middle-aged priests who grew up together.

The main character, Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, is the pastor of the down-and-out—and going nowhere—Old St. Paul's, a conglomerate parish which has seen better days and probably won't see them again. Father John Carmody, son of the infamous Charlie Carmody, one of the most hated Irish business shysters of his generation is the type-A pastor of a type-A parish, St. Raymond's, a place which functioned much like a hospital emergency room—as did many a big Eastern city Catholic parish of the 1960's era—that is, always running, often at top speed, and never closing its doors.

But the parishes only provide a backdrop for the story which really centers on Father Hugh and his relationship with the Carmody family: Charlie, the formidable patriarch; Hugh's best friend, John; Helen, his married sister and her family; Dan, the other brother who never could get his act together and Mary, Charlie’s caretaker and housekeeper.

The overarching mystery of the novel is why does Charlie—who never does anything to no avail—suddenly decide to start calling on Father Hugh, reminiscing about his so-called friendship with Hugh's long-dead father, who in fact knew Charlie for exactly what he was, a shrewd and self-motivated businessman who never did an unselfish act in his life? What is Charlie's game now? Even his own children are at a loss to explain his seemingly motiveless nostalgia. But as the story unfolds and we go deeper and deeper into the Carmody family, we sense the damage old Charlie has been wreaking, not only on his four adult children but on ‘friends’, clients, business associates and the city as a whole.

Not that I did it, but if you’re one of those who do, even reading the last page and/or chapter won’t ‘solve’ the mystery, although it is solved, I promise. For all its length and leisurely pace, The Edge of Sadness is one of the most satisfying books I have read in a long time, also one of the most insightful and thought-provoking. The vocation of the priesthood is viewed from the inside, without glamour or sentiment but as Real Life, sometimes happy and enjoyable, other times as living on ‘the edge of sadness’. But then what life isn’t?

Here are some additional links to book reviews I've written during this Year For Priests: The Diary of a Country Priest, Silence, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, and Love In A Fearful Land. They are all books about priests; the first two are fiction and the last two are biographies.

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