This is one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had with a priest.
I think O'Hagan has pulled off something truly extraordinary here, but even as I write that, I'm not really sure. I'm not feeling on particularly solid ground when it comes to my interpretation of this character or this novel overall. That is to say, I could have it totally wrong.
Wrong or not, I found Father David to be one of the most opaque, annoying, morally vacant, insufferably snotty, self-delusional, lazy-thinking, accountability-denying central characters I've ever met.
And so is his damn mother.
Does O'Hagan intend that I should feel sorry for him? I don't know. I know I don't.
Father David is a very bad priest. Not only because of the assault he's accused of committing; that he did commit (we see it from his own POV; we know it to be a fact);
. He's a bad priest from several different angles - most particularly, because he lacks any strong moral centre or conviction (I suppose that means "true calling") that enables him to counsel and console, spiritually, effectively, with humility and authenticity and genuine connection, his flock.
He is arrogant; he is consumed with worldly things (fine wines, classical music, etc); he lacks the ability to engage beyond the most superficial interaction (the latter which Mrs. Poole repeatedly calls him out on. She is a fabulous character.)
And he's a bad priest who finally admits - in a moment of uncharacteristically accurate self-reflection - that he had used the priesthood as a place to hide out since he couldn't, didn't, never does get his personal act together.
He never chooses
, he just goes along with.
He has so few strongly-held convictions, not political, not spiritual, not even sexual, that he can easily be led down whatever path looks the most attractive based on the flimsiest incentives. He can't say no - not even, or rather especially not, to himself. He is a child, with no ability to delay gratification or exert self-control -- another fact that he acknowledges, eventually; such acknowledgement as empty and devoid of meaning as every other bit of self-knowledge or feeling he learns or experiences.
He mourns and romanticizes his past, yet even when reflecting that that mourning and romanticism is misplaced (or at least, self-destructive), and that he has been both ignorant and hurtful, he never learns from it.
And here is where my own Scots-based puritanism comes to a full boil. He never, never, never takes accountability for his actions. No, I really mean it ... this next is a spoiler HE WAS 15 YEARS OLD, YA DUMB FUCK!! He was 15 years old, and he was deeply troubled, and you knew that and exactly why, since you counselled his dad (badly, no doubt). You were in a position of power, and you abused that power. And I don't care if you now, finally, have the courage to speak the truth, no, rather: your truth, in a court of law. That is BULLSHIT - you want forgiveness, you want to confess - because that's easy, that's your comfort zone. You think that by putting YOURSELF through that public humiliation, that flagellation, you will earn that forgiveness. But you will not -- you will not, because even at the end of it, you cling to this: "'I don't mind saying I fell for him. I don't mind saying I would have slept with him. I admit to being the most stupid person on earth. But I am not a paedophile or anything of that sort and I won't agree to it being called assault.'" p 222
The central event that in most novels would either cause the formerly-obtuse to see the light, or justice to be served or denied in some plot-pivoting way, causes this insufferable fool of a priest (and his mother) to go to the opera to forget about it.
I mean, I wanted to strangle him. I was as one with the crowds of haggis- and profanity-spitting blue-collar Scots in his parish crying for his head on a stick.
SO: *some* authors would play up that dynamic - because the haggis- and profanity-spitting Scots of the small town (racist, violent, xenophobic) were also behaving pretty reprehensibly, weren't they? Many authors would be using the character and his personal crisis as a way to make the reader take a side and then see it through to its logical conclusion. But deftly, O'Hagan makes it not about Father David or the central event, but about how morally relative everything suddenly is.
What positions do you hold, and how do you know that you're not any more a hypocrite than he/she/them? O'Hagan is interested in that question very much, and that he gets at it through this character and this event is really clever and quite a feat (the danger of not sticking with this novel long enough to see where it was going is high, I think--there's a good 160 pages of character-building and back-plotting before the event and the true character of this priest becomes explicit).
The moral relativism of things - the war in Iraq, racism, feminism, environmentalism, "in-groupism" of all sorts, all of which seem(ed) like side issues - suddenly become as important, or more important, than Father David's crisis. Father David is the perfect embodiment of moral relativity: in his own opinions (waffling; muddy) and in his actions (passive; sinful more in thought than deed). He is an ideal character if what you want to illustrate is not the moral failings of a priest, but the vast political and spiritual grey area between the poles, and how we struggle and vacillate in our attempt to navigate them. How our own past shapes our responses. And so, who are we to judge? Where does compassion and empathy really lie? Where, exactly, is the truth?
One (this reader, anyway) also realizes that we lack spiritual and moral leaders, now more than ever, in times that truly call for them. So Father David also embodies the disintegration of the moral certainty and force of the Church in people's lives. There is a companion theme here about parenting, and its similar descent as a force of good - as giving shape and guidance to young lives and where, without it, people end up. Educators and politicians, in a minor way, take the same drubbing.
Still, there are some truths, there is a moral ground that is pretty stable, pretty neutral (in a religio-political sense), pretty rock solid - and there are some characters (Mrs. Poole and her husband, in particular) who do exhibit clarity and decisiveness in speaking these truths and occupying that ground. The court room scene - without being all "tell-y", thank you very much Mr. O'Hagan - strips the acts from their interpretation, and is unequivocal in stating the right and the wrong of it (the law makes out pretty well, here, as potentially a stabilizing force of moral clarity. Hmmmm. Scratch at that opinion a little and it may unravel, but I'll put it out there...).
Thus, O'Hagan earns that 4th star (not 5, not yet at least) - for writing such a brilliant character portrait and a novel that really had very little to do with that character and his personal crisis. Then again, I could have it all wrong.