A roman a clef, a novel in which actual persons or places are depicted in fictional guise, can be fun. This one resembles the actual story of James A. Pike, the California Episcopal bishop, who created theological and social controversies, was divorced and remarried, died mysteriously in an Israeli desert, and was resurrected as a cultural folk hero.
The protagonist is Roy Train, who enters the Episcopal Church from a career in law (as did Pike), makes waves more dexterously than even Esther Williams, is enthroned as a bishop, leaves his wife for a younger woman (as did Pike), and dies in an Egyptian desert.
What was Pike like? He was passionate, immensely gifted, easily bored, hellbent on living, and a visionary who made things happen. His heart seemed generally to be in the right place, but oh, his mistakes. . . .
Train, like Pike, is outrageous on occasion. He moves from seminary to St. Simon's, an inner-city church in Jersey City, accompanied by his young wife, Joan. After he takes time out to participate in an Alabama civil rights confrontation, Train returns home "oddly chastened" and in the headlines. "He felt God had spoken directly into his ear, giving him a direction and the strength to follow it."
But his bishop is angry: "The church is not his to manipulate. His insistence on doing so is undermining his ministry." Soon, Train's congregation turns against him when his stand on acceptance of blacks is seen as moving too fast. Train transfers to Iowa City and Trinity Church, where he's a supporter of the anti-war movement and student protests. His community image changes from rabble-rouser to hero when he transforms a massive, unruly student demonstration from a destructive one to a healing force.
Enter Brenda Hutton. "How could he jeopardize the love of his exquisite wife with so coarse a woman?" Train defends himself: "While I'm in it, I want to be of this world. It's what I believe about Jesus too, that he was every inch of this world, with passions identical with mine."
When Train becomes a bishop, the dramatic scene reminds one of the remarkable moment of papal self-recognition in Frederick William Rolfe's "Hadrian the Seventh." But now we have "a bishop of the diocese from the center of an infidelity." Shades of "Dynasty." Also, Bishop Train starts making startling new headlines: "WOULD MODIFY TEN COMMANDMENTS" and "BISHOP TELLS OF CHRIST'S LOVE AFFAIR."
Train is drinking a lot, too. There's a heresy trial ahead, along with a divorce from Joan, remarriage to Brenda, and death in the desert. There's also an epitaph: "It is the struggle, not the victory nor the failure, either, that counts, and that is what he left for me for a faith."
A definitive biography of Bishop Pike has yet to be written. "The Death and Life of Bishop Pike" by William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne (1976) is a flawed, overly subjective attempt. Here, Leggett's obvious fictionalization of Pike's life distorts and sadly trivializes it. Roy Train's odyssey is often like an old-fashioned comic-strip with grotesque, one-dimensional characters and a simplistic lack of intellectual and theological sophistication. It's an entertaining page-turner, but that's all.