The National Catholic Review

The great bulk of Thomas Keneally’s 30-some books have been fiction, but he’s at his best when dealing with facts, as in his splendid novelized biography, Schindler’s List (1993), his family-clan-nation epic The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World (1999) and his recent American Scoundrel (2002), about the shameless, irrepressible General Dan Sickles.

It’s hard not to like Keneally: his narratives have warmth, energy and generous affection for their broad spectrum of characters. His style tends to be serviceable rather than polished (That which in him made him relish the communal life of the seminary would dispose him, he believed, to enjoy the ordered fraternity of the army); and, as Office of Innocence repeatedly shows, he has a weakness for melodrama. For example, he triumphantly pulls out that old Catholic chestnut, the dilemma of a priest who knows who committed a terrible murder, but cannot turn in the killer because of the seal of confession.

And so the pleasures of Office of Innocence derive less from its lively-corny plot than from its lovingly described historical backdrop, Sydney and environs in 1942, as the Japanese threaten to invade Australia, and the whole country is on agonized alert. This is not a setting familiar to most Americans; and Keneally brings it powerfully to life.

His protagonist, the Rev. Frank Darragh, is a newly ordained parish priest, a naïve, sheltered only child with a somewhat shaky vocation. At once virginal and consumed with barely acknowledged sexual desire, young Father Frank makes up for his inexperience with burning zeal and a frustrated desire to imitate the heroic example of his dead father, who fought on the Western front in World War I. (Keneally himself is a former seminarian, and he dedicates the book to his own father, Sgt. Tom Keneally, who fought in North Africa during World War II.)

Darragh’s priestly passion, which makes him suspect to his crusty, conventional pastor, Monsignor Carolan, leads him to spend endless hours in the confessional and to risk his life by shielding a black American soldier who has gone AWOL and whom the M.P.’s would just as soon shoot dead. He also finds himself getting pastorally and romantically involved with two beautiful, minimally repentant adulteresses. One of them, Rosie Flood, is dying from tuberculosis and so poses no realistic threat.

The other, Kate Heggarty, is a different story. Her husband is far away, a German prisoner of war and while she admits to having a dalliance with an unnamed, well-heeled man because she prefers sacrificing her soul to the miseries of poverty, she’s also drawn to Frank, and he to her. But before they get beyond the mildest Platonic preliminaries, Kate is found brutally strangled; and since he once visited her at home, Father Frank gets caught up in the stormy scandal. The mess only worsens when he sneaks out of the rectory in mufti one night to visit Kate’s house, whereupon he gets slugged by an embittered, priest-hating Communist worker, Ross Trumble, who happens to have been the lover of Rosie Flood and a friend of Kate Heggarty. Though caught off guard, Frank winds up giving Trumble as good as he gets; but the pair are nabbed by the police, and Father Darragh’s ecclesiastical future is looking dim indeed.

In the book’s explosive climax, Kate’s murderer confesses everything to Father Frank and then offers to turn himself in if the priest will agree to another, non-sacramental encounter at a bar. This Dostoyevskyan confab, in turn, is swept up into a giant apocalypse of blood and confusion when the Japanese attack Sydney harbor, and the schizophrenic killer drops his mask of repentance and tries to strangle Frank. But in an improbable last-second twist Frank is rescued, and the murderer conveniently incriminates himself. In the final scene, a year later, our battered, wavering priest has been laicized (at least temporarily) and is serving as a corporal medical orderly at a hospital in New Guinea.

Will he survive the next Japanese assault? Will he return to the priesthood? At all events Frank has had his baptism of fire; he has honored his father’s legacy; and, as in every proper Bildungsroman, he has grown as a human being, sadder but wiser and so forth.

Kenneally’s book could be turned into a terrific film, though Hollywood would no doubt add a few gratuitous nude dream-sequences. But the story still works better as documentary than as drama. It is crammed with carefully observed details of pre-Vatican II Catholic life in a setting at once exotic and familiar. (The Office in the title refers both to Darragh’s priesthood and to his faithful recitation of the breviary in Latin, which is quoted again and again, most of the time accurately.)

Keneally knows this humble, thoroughly Irish world inside and out. He portrays its quiet virtues and (largely) harmless failings without veering into either sentimental idealization or anachronistic contempt. He repeatedly shows how beneath its puritanical surface, sex, including guilt-ridden homosexual desire, is forever rumbling and causing trouble. Even Frank’s devout maiden aunt Madge (who can quote whole paragraphs from Rerum Novarum), turns out to have had a tempestuous affair with a married neighbor.

And Keneally, despite his failings, such as shameless use of the long arm of coincidence and the deus ex machina, makes an affable, unassuming, shrewd guide to this far-flung outpost of the church universal, where people with names like Keogh and Kearney live in places with names like Cootamundra and Tamarama. It’s an otherwise forgettable backwater made grimly interesting by both the ordinary fury and mire of human veins and the extraordinary cosmic nightmare of war.

Peter Heinegg, a frequent reviewer, is professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.