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Dark forces

Be Near Me A Novel Andrew O'Hagan Harcourt: 306 pp., $24

June 10, 2007|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, a former executive editor and literary editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

DAVID ANDERTON betrays himself with a kiss in Andrew O'Hagan's new novel, "Be Near Me," becoming both Jesus and Judas in that simple act. His vestments will not save him. That he is a Catholic priest may help to martyr him, for the locals of his parish, the Scottish town of Dalgarnock, already address him as "ya papish scum" and "ya English bastard."

In his defense, Father David, who narrates this pensive confessional novel, claims his Edinburgh birth, but he had an English father, was raised in Lancashire and studied briefly at Oxford. ("Yer man's as English as two weeks in Essex," the postman tells the priest's housekeeper, Mrs. Poole.) There is no love for the queen in this hardscrabble town ("They think we're a novelty act up here, just a bunch a people no' worthy ae the same kinna respect"), nor is there much to spare for Catholics. Northern Ireland is just across the water, and Dalgarnock (the name is apparently lifted from the poet Robert Burns) suffers from "a briny dilution of Ireland's famous troubles."

Of his own troubles, Father David says they began "in a thousand places." There was the death of his surgeon father in his youth ("I'm sure he would have come to find my mother and me quite intolerable"). There was his education by the monks at Ampleforth, which he recalls as "a merciful place and a truthful one" despite later accusations of abuse from other students. There was Oxford, where, during the student turmoil of 1968, he met his first love, Conor, a radical; and the seminary years in Rome, where David befriended his later benefactor, Bishop Gerard, whose Glasgow phrasings he would hear "murmured through the grille of a confessional box" in the Gothic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

O'Hagan's setting has its own gothic overtones. Father David notes that Dalgarnock "seems now like the central place in a story I had known all along," his life having "only been preparation for the darkness of that town." Mrs. Poole warns him that most of the townspeople "wouldn't give you daylight in a dark corner." Mr. Dorran, a music teacher at St. Andrew's, the local Catholic school, warns him too. "You know what this town is?" he sputters. "It's an unemployment black spot. I don't think you understand what has happened here. The factories are empty. The churches are empty."

Father David visits the abandoned factories in a feckless engagement with a pair of troubled youths, who shout just to hear the echoes amid the empty sheds and broken glass. "Their desolation seemed greatly addictive ... and I sat waiting for them to bring me into their world," he says, by way of explaining his choice of company.

Father David is looking back on the events that took place in Dalgarnock from a year's remove. The kiss of self-betrayal -- perhaps innocent in intent but extremely foolish in context -- was bestowed on a 15-year-old boy, one of the misbegotten, pill-popping students he'd befriended. That pivotal moment leads to a charge of sexual assault and a trial. O'Hagan may have snatched the subject from today's headlines, but with remarkable skill he turns potential tabloid fare on its head: The priest is a sympathetic figure and numbers among the more honorable characters in the novel, even in his fall from grace.

Like earlier O'Hagan protagonists, Father David is an idealist, and "Be Near Me" -- perhaps surprisingly, given its religious backdrop -- is secular in its concerns, not weighed down by issues of Catholicism in the way that, say, Graham Greene novels can be. Through it wafts debate over the legacy of the 1960s, the necessity or morality of the war in Iraq, the shortcomings of tribalism as a mind-set, the nature of loyalty.

As if constructing a literary and moral minefield, O'Hagan sets up betrayals of various stripes (in addition to the shuttered factories and unwanted sexual advances) to mirror others. Mrs. Poole, who has cancer, has been betrayed physically by her body and emotionally by her husband, who left a note in their bed reading, in block letters, "I DON'T LOVE YOU ANYMORE." And yet to Father David's blandishments and reassurances she replies: "It is not your job to make things smaller than they are." Later, when she accuses him of hypocrisy and he gently responds that she is not well, she shoots back, "Aye. But I know what my illness is."

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