The Edge of
Edwin O'Connor wrote The Last Hurrah, supposedly a keen novel about Boston politics. I had always been meaning to read it, as I have A Pilgrim's Progress, and War and Peace (not to say all of Charles Dickens and Horace Walpole) but Loyola University Press sent me this one instead, presumably because the tale of a priest in mid-life crises would be of interest to new seminarians and those of the Irish Catholic persuasion, old reprobates like me.
Father Hugh Kennedy is an aging priest living and working in Boston. His is a mixed parish --- Chinese, old Irish, and newly-arriving Puerto Ricans. St. Paul's is not considered to be a plum. It was once filled with the faithful first and second generation Irish. Now the church itself is falling apart, the neighborhood filled with immigrants and losers.
Father Kennedy grew up as an Irish Catholic, always knew his calling, which was to became a priest. No doubts at all. Still, at the beginning of The Edge of Sadness, we discover that he recently spent four years drying out in Arizona. He had, in middle-age, taken to drink. Now he has, apparently, been cured. He has since been successful at avoiding temptation of any sort, and we see a kindly middle-aged priest who manages to find the Light of God in everything --- his musty old chapel, his young curate, and the irritating people he grew up with.
The Edge of Sadness is not without its virtues. It can keep one going, but sometimes almost in terminal despair. Not because of the fate of the various characters; not because of its general benign and hopeful view of religion itself. Much of our desuetude comes about because of these intolerable angels that keep popping up: Father Hugh is sweet and tolerant and good ... too damn good, if you ask me. He's always forgiving everyone, which can drive a professional sourpuss like me bats. The bad guy here is Charlie Carmody, father to Dan and Helen and John --- people Father Hugh grew up with. (Brother John has chosen to became a priest as well.)
Outside of turning into a boozer for a few years, and an occasional stinging word or too (he also says "Good heavens" a lot), Hugh is the priest we all learned to love from the Bing Crosby hits "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's" --- heart-warming stories of Catholic life complete with irascible but heart-warming old scamps like Barry Fitzgerald. It's a troubling but ultimately good world here: no unseemly passions, no global warming, no ethnic cleansing, no crazy drugs (outside of hootch), no AIDs. No meth; no drive-by shootings; no famines and international nuclear crises. Just simple those old down-home problems (divorce, drinking, discouragement, dilettantism, duplicity) admidst the benign representatives of the divine. The chief villain, Father John's dad Charlie, might be a scoundrel ("As fine a man as ever robbed the helpless" says Hugh's father) but he is to be forgiven --- according to Hugh --- because he is so full of life, a veritable eighty-one-year-old elf.
A dozen times I vowed to put down this stinker and go do the wash or get another martini. It is one of those chatty novels we had to put up with years ago, and, on top of that, a novel with A Message.
Now, I am not against a Novel-with-Message. We could never fault Ignacio Silone for the dominant social consciousness in Bread and Wine, no more than we can ignore the innate nobility (in the religious sense) of yet another whiskey priest ... the unnamed (and soulful) sacerdote in The Power and the Glory.
But O'Connor has other tics that can be irritating. The dialogue seems to go on forever, while the author seems to be actively hiding out from words that might have more than two syllables. There are, as we say, quite a few saints floating around in O'Connor's placid world: not only Hugh, but his old playmate Father John, John's sister Helen (who complains of "the edge of sadness" in life). Even the old thief Charlie betrays a twinkling merriment beneath his harsh exterior, and Hugh's superior, the good Bishop, turns out to be beyond reproach. To leaven the seriousness, there are two characters --- Buck and E.J. --- who might be thought of as a more or less Gaelic Abbot and Costello comedy team, who simply do not know how to shut their traps.
Ultimately, we end up wanting father Hugh to blow his cool, just once, please, but his innate kindliness and O'Connor's innate ability to keep the ball rolling --- however otiosely --- make this 600+ page tome impossible, it seems, to be done with. So we plug away, sometimes hurrying over passages, knowing, now, what people did with the time before television came along to turn us all into cornmeal mush.
In case we are not exactly sure about the didactic purpose of The Edge of Sadness, Loyola Press has kindly offered, on the last pages, ten questions with space --- a tiny space, but space nonetheless --- for response. Thus we can mull questions like "What is your general impression of Father Hugh Kennedy's personality and character?" and "According to Father Kennedy, what led to his drinking problem?" Of the ten questions "for further discussion," my personal favorite was "How did Charlie Carmody affect each of his children? How do you feel that your parents have influenced your choices?"
Despite the inherent nosiness of this question, I have to respond honestly that I can't really say. My folks didn't want me to go off into something as forbidding as the priesthood, God knows. Perhaps that's why I ended up being such a ne'er-do-well. And now that you ask, compared to this bunch, I suppose I had it easy. Dad never complained about the cooking the way that Charlie did, taking one bite of the chicken and then pushing it away. Mum never stopped talking to him, the way that Mrs. Charlie did. My sister didn't marry a doctor like Helen (although I wish she had: I could sure use some free medical advice about this time of my life). And my brother didn't go into the priesthood like John, although I wouldn't mind that either --- sometimes we could use a burst of holiness to help the family to make it through the new year.
No, I have to beg off on this one. In our case, one layabout like me seems all that the doctor --- or the divinity --- ordered. But thanks for asking.--- Mike O'Donnell