Tongues of Flame by Tim Parks (Grove Press: $12.95)
Trailing two major English literary prizes, this slender novel of adolescent awakening may leave American readers somewhat underwhelmed. The genre is one at which we've excelled for a century or so, beginning with Huckleberry Finn and continuing in an unbroken line to Holden Caulfield and beyond. Like hamburgers, the home-grown version seems juicier and more authentic. "Tongues of Flame," despite generous side orders of religious fanaticism and sexual confusion, needs relish and mustard. Maybe we're jaded, surfeited with fundamentalism and youthful rebellion.
Set in a tranquil parish within easy reach of London, the events are narrated by 15-year-old Richard Bowen, the vicar's son. With the exception of the cynical, self-possessed older brother Adrian, the family is as ordinary and bland as porridge. Father fulfills all his various parochial obligations, Mother is responsible for general good works, and sister Anna expects to marry her unappealing beau Ian and go with him to China, "which was where Ian had been called to go as a missionary."
Until the young curate Donald Ronaldson interrupts the serene Anglican Sunday service by suddenly speaking in tongues, life in the vicarage has been altogether unremarkable. Ronaldson's outburst changes all that. Sister Anna is radicalized, brother Adrian grows even more disdainful and remote, Richard begins to question his faith in earnest, and Mother extends her Samaritanism by inviting a young and disruptive young Cockney policewoman to live with the family.
Despite her original skepticism about Ronaldson's public breast-beating, Mother is soon speaking fluently in tongues herself, praying with troubled young women behind closed parlor doors, saving them from the various Satanic temptations pervading England in 1968. Even the vicar finds himself swept away on the tide of this new passion. He changes the name of the scholarly book he's writing first to "A Dove's Wings at the Gates of Hell" and then to "Spiritual Warfare," not only permitting but encouraging his normally reserved congregation to shout Ay-men and Hallelujah, to belt out revivalist hymns in place of the 1666 standards--in every way attempting to move with the times. Though he never quite manages to speak in tongues himself, he rationalizes the gabble around him by explaining why it may be better or at least possible to speak in another language when conversing with God.
The transformation of the parish is proceeding steadily if somewhat sluggishly when Ronaldson decides to step up the pace. He organizes search-and-destroy parties of young people to picket cinemas showing Satanic movies, persuades his disciples to bring their rock records to church to be smashed, and conducts an amazingly successful campaign against sex, forcibly pulling apart young couples who linger together in the church corridors. Our narrator, who has just begun to talk to girls without quaking in his Wellies, is so affected that he resolves not to see his girlfriend anymore, lest Satan creep through "the very pores of our sinful flesh." The overwrought atmosphere in the vicarage is heightened by the influence of the boarder Maggie, who attempts to seduce both Adrian and Anna, though she clearly prefers Anna.
Spurred on by Ronaldson, the entire parish is soon not only chattering in tongues but prophesying and casting out devils, rousing the peaceful countryside to a pitch of religious frenzy hardly seen since Henry VIII founded the Church of England. Richard recounts these escalating events in a tone of semi-detachment and only partial comprehension, chronicling his own doubts, guilts and fears as he observes the hysteria around him. Though he tries valiantly for the wit and humor of his brother Adrian, Richard is essentially a solemn boy, too unsettled by the disintegration of his town and family to bring much jollity to the story.
By the time he reaches the ultimate climax of the novel, a retreat held on a boarding school campus, we're way ahead of him. Clues to what will happen at this annual house-party have been scattered through the book as thickly as raisins in a Christmas pudding.