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EARTHLY POWERS by Anthony Burgess Kirkus Star


by Anthony Burgess

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1980
ISBN: 1609450841
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Much too, long and just as loosely assembled as his other recent novels, Burgess' latest black-comic variation on man's sin and God's cruel tricks does have, however, an engagingly grandiose design: the life of homosexual, lapsed-Catholic Kenneth Toomey—a popular, second-rate novelist/playwright whose dates (1890-1971) and connections embrace most of the sexual, artistic, and religious pressure points of the century's first half. Approximately 75% Maugham, 15% Coward, and 10% Waugh, Toomey begins his narration at age 81—when, self-exiled in Malta and wrangling with his latest lover-secretary, he's asked to support the canonization of the late Pope Gregory XVII with a written recollection of one of the Pope's miracles. A book-length flashback then ensues, of course, starting with Toomey at 26, unsuccessfully "trying to reconcile my sexual urges with my religious faith." Dumped by a smarmy, mincing poet (a lifelong nemesis), threatened with scandal over an affair with a married actor, and depressed by his mother's horror at his homosexuality, Toomey leaves London for Europe—where he falls in with the rich Campanati brothers: anti-prohibition businessman Rafaelle, who'll be a Mafia victim in the US; hack composer Domenico, who'll marry Toomey's sister Hortense and (wisely) sell out to Hollywood; but, above all, fat Carlo, a gluttonous, gambling, devout exorcist-priest with whom Toomey debates the matter of free will. And when Toomey find true love with a doctor in Kuala Kangsar who gets fatally cursed by a native Satanist, it's Carlo who magically appears for an exorcism—an impressive, though futile, performance . . . soon followed by Carlo's miracle cure of a dying child in a Chicago hospital. From the Thirties on, however, the novel becomes more lazily episodic, a parade of global and personal calamities to parallel the climbs of Toomey and anti-fascist Carlo (who's out to "make Pope"): the Campanatis' mother dies while trying to assassinate Himmler (who's saved, embarrassingly, by Toomey); Toomey attempts to rescue an Austrian Nobel-winner but merely winds up on German radio sounding pro-Nazi (like poor P.G. Wode-house); Hortense, now with a black lesbian lover, loses an eye in a freak accident. And after Carlo does make Pope in 1958, becoming ecumenical Gregory XVII, family woes escalate: Hortense's anthropologist son is killed by African terrorists (the murder is later linked to the natives' wayward embrace of Catholicism!); her lover dies in agony; and her granddaughter dies in a Jonestown-like mass suicide led by guru Godfrey Manning . . . who turns out to have been that child whom Carlo miraculously healed years ago in Chicago!! So much for miracles—and free will—and life—is what pessimist Burgess (a professed "renegade Catholic") once again seems to be saying; and that one-note theme is hardly resonant enough to round out the sketchy characterization and daffy plotting here. Still, Toomey is an ideal Burgess narrator—bitchy, erudite, wordplaying—and his involvements with America, academia, opera, musicals, and literature (boozy Joyce, smelly Forster, Havelock Ellis, Kipling, a censorship trial in which Toomey finally comes out of the closet), inspire slashing put-downs, wicked parodies, and splendidly whimsical allusions of all sorts. Despite all the issues and debates, then: an essentially skin-deep entertainment, chiefly for savvy Anglophiles and theologically inclined littÉrateurs, which—as Toomey says of his own work—takes unprofound material and manages "to elevate it through wit, allusion and irony to something like art.