An intellectual’s revolt against the faith of his father becomes a disabling shaping force in this talky if intriguing first novel.
British (now Washingtonian) literary critic Wood (The Broken Estate, 1999) has as his narrator an Englishman by the name of Thomas Bunting, a philosophy professor who moonlights briefly as an obituary writer—explaining missed deadlines by citing the recent death of his father, a respected priest in a rural northern England village. But Peter Bunting is at this point decidedly alive—and the aforementioned falsehood is only one of hundreds concocted by his son, who’s not so much a Doubting Thomas, or even a committed atheist, as a lifelong “evader” of truths that confirm his father’s confident worldview and seem to limit Thomas’s own possibilities. This makes the story sound tedious, which it frequently is, owing to a plethora of conversations between Thomas and his estranged wife Jane (who loves him but hates his duplicity); his childhood friend Max Thurlow, a newspaper “pundit” (who “was succeeding for both of us”); assorted colleagues and acquaintances, and—interestingly—Terry Upsher, a semiliterate workingman whose simple honesty suggests the nature Thomas has resolutely rejected. The title denotes a book (his “BAG”) that Thomas is supposedly writing (instead of completing his long-aborning Ph.D.), which argues from design that the horrors of existence prove that whatever God created them isn’t worth worshipping. This is of course unoriginal, but it’s still the insistent nerve center here, particularly in climactic scenes wherein Thomas is all but silenced (if not persuaded) by his father’s lucid eloquence (“ . . . if you take God away from the world, the world is no less . . . painful or sinful or unsaved. It is simply painful and sinful . . . without the hope of salvation or succour”).
Not really successful as a novel, but literate, provocative, and at times quite surprisingly moving.