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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.