THE VICAR OF CHRIST by Walter F. Murphy


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Can you devote a 650-page novel to one man and fail to generate any gut interest in this single life story? Apparently you can; because Murphy's intelligent, high-toned, massively overwritten first novel, though often fascinating in its behind-the-scenes detail at the Supreme Court and the Vatican, manages to keep hero Declan Walsh both remote and one-dimensional. We see Walsh only through the eyes of acquaintances--three narrators, … la Citizen Kane, whose contrasting styles are exaggerated just enough to be irritating. First Walsh's army buddy from the Korean War--raunchy Sgt. ""Gunny"" Giucciardini--tells how young Col. Walsh won his Congressional Medal of Honor, in 100 pages of good, strong war-action storytelling that's marred only by the staginess of the ornately low-down dialogue. Then we jump ahead about 25 years for 150 pages narrated by an impossibly hoity-toity Supreme Court Justice--who tells us how law professor Walsh became Chief Justice; how he autocratically tried to turn the Court into a ""legal aid bureau""; and how he collapsed and retreated into a Trappist monastery when his alcoholic wife (to whom he'd been unfaithful) was killed in a semi-suicidal car crash. And then at last we have the heart of the book: 400 pages of Italian-accented Cardinal Ugo Galeotti, who tells us how Walsh (implausibly) was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II; how this new Pope Francesco I outraged everyone by trying to reform the Church and by leading a pacifist, anti-establishment worldwide crusade; and how Pope Francesco--now a renowned faith-healer and a borderline megalomaniac--was assassinated, maybe by the CIA. Through all this, Walsh remains a psychological blank: we never have any real sense of his background, his personality, his inner thoughts. Instead Murphy offers debates and discussions: court cases (abortion, reverse discrimination), Vatican issues (celibacy, birth control, Church finances), and the role of religious morality in international politics. And it's all clear and thoughtful--so what a wonderful novel this might have been if Murphy had been a)wisely edited, and b) able to provide a human being at its center. But without that living hub, this nobly-intentioned mammoth is only for undiscriminating lovers of gargantuan books and for those with special interest in the theological and legal materials so exhaustively covered.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1979
Publisher: Macmillan