The Good Men
A Novel of Heresy
(Riverhead)In the old days, the Catholic Church was not unlike the Standard Oil Trust or Microsoft: it didn't favor competition. Thus, the Cathars of the Languedoc region of France were subject to an especially raucous Inquisition in the 13th century. Primarily, it was aimed at a fundamentalist group called "The Good Men" --- all considered to be heretics.The Good Men believed that Jesus had never been born out of the body corrupt, so he just appeared one day out of the blue, a gift of god, as it were. They also said that couples shouldn't be doing anything in bed besides sleeping, and shouldn't drink milk. Since the Catholic Church liked milk, was, generally, in favor of babies, and claimed to know, better than anyone else, where Jesus came from --- the Inquisitors came to Montaillou to convince The Good Men to recant or get baked.In dealing with the heretics, the church relied on four tried-and-
true methods: noisome, crowded cells; incessant questioning at the usual inconvenient hours; relying on informants to rat on their friends. Finally, when all else failed, they cooked up The Good Men with fagots and a great deal of enthusiasm. If any of The Good Men had the temerity to die before the church got hold of them, they dug up the bones and cooked those.
It was a time to try men's souls, and Ms. Craig endeavors to give us the taste, feel, smell and excrescences --- as well as the excesses --- of the times by presenting us with three generations of Cathars. It starts with Fabrisse, a bastard, who gets a job in a castle with one of the members of the aristocratie because her hair smells like almonds.
Châtelaine, the noblewoman, is having a to-do with Rector Pierre Clergue. Since Fabrisse has to bring them together in the castle's cellar, she gets to watch. From her vantage point, she develops quite a fondness for Rector Clergue's buttocks.
However, she grows up and marries Pons who, despite his cerebral name, gets converted by the Good Men. They tell him that he should stop making the beast with two backs with Fabrisse. She doesn't think much of this, because the day she and Pons got married, he turned blue:
When he was an arm's reach away, he stopped, tall and almost blue in the moonlight.
He also had breath that was "sweet and smooth as milk."
But then he gets converted by the Good Men so he starves himself to death because he wants to enter paradise. Fabrisse was fond of Pons so when he dies, albeit in ecstasy, she is sad. She is also with child who, once on the scene, decides to hell with it and stops talking. They name her Echo.
Echo grows up to be quite a looker, and, when she's sixteen, Pastor Clergue, that overachiever, takes her out next to the riverbank and tops her. It's all in the family. Echo is not averse to this coupage --- despite the forty year difference in their ages --- so soon enough she is with child. Since she can't talk she can't confess her sins to her priest who, since he is also her lover, knows it all anyway.
Meanwhile, the Inquisition blasts into town and Pierre, knowing that the time may be nigh for him to be parboiled, meets a simple syphilitic homosexual carpenter named Artaud. Because of his fondness for Echo, and because of his impending departure, he presents her with a house and Artaud as a suitable husband then goes off to Ax-le-Thermes not to take the baths but to get a little more dilletage with the ladies of the night.
Echo's marriage actually works out find because Artaud isn't much for waking her at 3 a.m. what with his sexual orientation and the oozing cysts. Soon enough he is a mass of stinking syphilitic pustules which people are hard-pressed to explain since syphilis didn't exist in Europe at the time.
Meanwhile, Rector Pierre Clerque falls into the hands of the Chief of the Inquisition who is absolutely fascinated by all these dynamite trysts that he has been having. Inquisitor Bernard (all these creeps are named Bernard, aren't they --- remember Bernie Cornfield? And My Attorney Bernie?) can't figure out how this shrimp of a curé with a disjointed hip is able to bed so many ladies. Pierre looks like he can barely make it across the room, much less drop his pants --- and yet during the course of The Good Men, he manages to inculcate a goodly part of the female population of Montaillou. Mostly after confession.
By the simple expedient of chaining him in a musty cell "in his own waste" without food or water for several months, Bernard convinces Pierre to talk about his nightlife as well as fingering some of his parishioners who might be affiliated with The Good Men. If you are looking for a moral here it might be that if you are sleeping with your pastor you'd better not be passing the time of day with other spiritual types in your off-hours.
Bernard comes to see Rector Clergue for the last time, and there is a great deal of shouting, trembling, rattling of manacles, gnashing of teeth, and stiff upperlipism. As Pierre is about to be led off to be stir-fried, Bernard decides that he (Bernard, that is) is "nothing more than a coward." Is he not, our author asks, rhetorically,
guilty of committing acts of equal lechery, if only in the darkness of his dreams?
In cathedral square, as they prepare to smoke our lusty Rector Pierre, "a curious whimpering smile" came over his lips. The Inquisitor is watching from a nearby tower, but his victory is soiled:
How lonely Bernard felt, alone as a baby abandoned on the bank of a reedy river.
Those of us who manage to struggle this far in The Good Men will come to the conclusion that the author not only has trouble with her writing style, she also has trouble cutting off her water. Echo thinks at one point,
Our love goes just like the branch of the hawthorn bush, that remains on the tree at night, in the rain and the frost.
But Rector Pierre has different ideas:
"Putana," he muttered. Whore. "Putrid with the rot of so much putrid milk."
As you can see, milk plays a heavy, if not crucial, rôle in The Good Men. And once our author has set this milk-train in motion, what with the three generations, the Inquisition, the dallying of the religious heavies and the sudden appearance of syphilis --- it's a little hard to put on the brakes without running off the tracks. Thus the penultimate chapter feels tacked on because, well, with everyone dead or off to Spain, we need a quick resolution.
Rector Pierre dies, amidst the smoking fagots, his curious whimpering smile intact. Artaud too passes on to a pus-filled but blissful death. Bernard gets rewarded by the church, shipped off to murder a few heretics in one of the colorful towns of Galicia. Echo gets released from prison even though she'll have to appear regularly on feast-days to get a lashing by the village priest. Even with her annual penance, even knowing that she's alone in the world, "she knows it and accepts it as she never did before,"
She feels a beating liveliness all around. She hears the whispering breath of wind in the trees, the clean rush of river water by her feet water by her feet, two birds calling, calling.
She decides forthwith to go forth and Live, live, bloom, be...
--- Lolita Lark