The award-winning author of The Prince of West End Avenue (1994), among others, stays true to form with this immensely funny and sad story about the slippery road to identity.
The narrator is Edmond Music, an errant Catholic priest, born a French Jew. At one point, the erudite Edmond explains that priesthood is but a job: “Hypocrisy is a constant of the human condition, unavoidable, as necessary to our well-being as meat and drink.” So he lives well at Beale Hall, an English country estate, where he reflects on human behavior with the aid of arcane or about-to-be arcane books and thoughts, particularly those of Solomon Reuben Hayyim Falsch, the Pish, and William Shakespeare, the Bard. The story opens with Edmond in a bar contemplating the announcement that he’s been killed in a freak automobile accident, driving his “modest Morris Minor of a certain age, into the famous Stuart Oak of the Beale estate.” It turns out that the badly mangled victim was Trevor Stuffins, a local worker. Edmond sips his Calvados and toys with the idea that the Vatican may have sent henchmen who fiddled with his brakes, causing the accident, because the Vatican wants to remove him from his grand digs. Soon Edmond is involved in a contest of wits with his lifelong enemy, the American priest Fred Twombly, who calls him SJ (for “secret Jew”). Twombly has finally found the means to bring Edmond down: he’s stumbled upon knowledge of a priceless Shakespeare folio, possibly missing from Beale Hall’s fabulous library, entitled Dyuers and Sondry Sonettes. Edmond feints, seeking solutions to the problems raised by the missing folio in his Pishiana collection, while others—especially his unhappy lover, housekeeper Maude; his aging dangerously factotum, Father Bastien; and the vile Twombly—keep the action moving at a brisk pace. All the characters are superbly realized, but Edmond, a man battling with himself at the close of his life, is the most engaging.
A profound tale, with its profundity couched in irreligious humor.