The National Catholic Review
Peter Heinegg
Talk about heroic labors. To flesh out the tale of his quirky Irish-American theologian, Fr. Eddie Danaher, George McCauley (a New York Jesuit) invents major chunks of history: an imaginary religious order, the Christian Fathers, founded in the 16th century by a swashbuckling Portuguese explorer-turned-priest known only as Diogo, who writes an epoch-making manual called the Spiritual Regimento, and who provides a caravel-full of metaphors for the 20th century adventures of his Irish-American son. Not content with that, McCauley endows his protagonist, Eddie, with an elaborate psychological-religious typology that he spends much of his life peddling (and that sets off alarm bells at the Doctrinal Oversight Commission in Rome). McCauley further packs his story with swatches of rather good verse (attributed to a host of authors), a wide array of multicultural references, credible dialogue and some snappy prose (Jeff still hadn’t grown a chin, but his beard had become more belligerent and deranged).

Truth to tell, the Christian Fathers often sound like the Society of Jesus (though Diogo, who is also credited with a book called Latitudes, seems rather more amusing than Ignatius Loyola); and Fr. Danaher’s system at times echoes the Enneagram and Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral stages. Fr. McCauley is himself a published poet. And various other items (the C. F. seminary north of Newburgh, St. Alvaro’s University, etc.) practically cry out roman à clef! Still, McCauley has certainly followed Keats’s famous advice to Shelley, Load every rift with ore.

But what of the hero? Eddie is indeed a full-bodied, keen-eyed character, a sort of Pete Hamill in orders; yet his life has little shape or drama to it. He talks a lot, he teaches a lot, he argues a lot. He has strong friendships with women, a couple of which threaten to, but don’t, turn into love affairs. He studies in Europe, gets a doctorate, travels all over, works as a part-time guru for the Belsize Institute, but what exactly does all this make him, and where in heaven’s name is he headed? Real lives, McCauley seems to be saying, don’t flow in neat geometric shapes or to predictable rhythms. And while priest-professors are undoubtedly human, you cannot expect their résumés to be electrifying. Fair enough, but shouldn’t the author at least tell us more or less plainly what Eddie’s dream is? (He doesn’t.) In a characteristically bold lurch (bad lapse?) of taste, McCauley has chosen a terra cotta relief by the Baroque sculptor Pierre Puget, Christ Dying on the Cross (1680), for his cover illustrationbut with the cross removed, the image reversed and, believe it or not, a basketball superimposed over Jesus’ right hand, so that he appears to be executing a slam dunk. Yesss!

Given McCauley’s laudable ambition, one could forgive such miscalculations (there are otherse.g., the repeated use of like as a conjunction, presumably to add colloquial flavor), but what are we left with in the end? Here is McCauley’s answer:

Once, many years ago, Marie [Eddie’s fellow theologian and near-innamorata] said to him, You’re like your friend Diogo, Eddie. You sort things out in your dreams, and then you’re off on some impossible adventure. It’s not always fair to the rest of us. But as he thought back now to those kids in the stands [he has just dreamt of an All-Time N.B.A. Superstar game, with his Types as the juvenile audience] the bond between them, the love of the game, the childlike joyit was like he had received some kind of precious gift from God. For that one moment, he never in his life felt more whole.

Finis. Some kind of precious gift? How precious can a gift be if you cannot name it or see it clearly? What happens after the moment fades? In what sense is Eddie whole then? What, ultimately, is he living for? What does he mean by experiential theology (his signature course)? Come to think of it, that curious typology of his (the Good Student, the Chum, the Beggar, the Citizen, etc.) looks mostly negative and reductive, a series of mistaken defense mechanisms. What gives?

Eddie’s self-explanation, insofar as he gives one, is iffy. When asked late in his clerical career (which apparently stretches from the 1960’s to the present) why he hasn’t joined the exodus from Catholic religious life, he replies, I didn’t leave because I’m still trying to enter. A nice Kierkegaardian parry (S.K. said he wasn’t actually a Christian, just trying to become one), if not all that helpful. McCauley is never anything less than intense, acute and fabulously knowledgeable; but Eddie’s dream remains pretty much a mystery.

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