Fiction Alan Isler Clerical Errors

ISBN 13: 9780099285854

Clerical Errors

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9780099285854: Clerical Errors

Aside from his blatant lack of piety -- and the fact that he's Jewish -- Father Edmond Music could have been a model priest. Now, entrenched at an English estate with a vast library, he would rather pursue a decades-old liaison with his housekeeper than crack down on his assistant's dial-a-confession phone ministry, or, more important, investigate the whereabouts of a rare Shakespeare text gone missing on his watch.

Then, out of nowhere, penance comes due. His car is found totaled (possibly by Vatican hit men), his annoying archrival of the cloth is looking to nail him as a thief, and the once-passionate housekeeper is lapsing into religious fervor. With his forty-year idyll falling apart, Edmond can no longer ignore the danger of the present, or the echoes of his buried past.

National Jewish Book Award-winning author Alan Isler delivers a hilarious and touching literary homily, confirming his unique gift for mingling comedy and tragedy in this deeply moving exploration of faith, love, and identity.

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About the Author:

Alan Isler was born in London in 1934. He taught English literature in New York City for twenty-five years. His first novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, won the 1994 National Jewish Book Award and was one of five fiction finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of Kraven Images and The Bacon Fancier: Four Tales. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One

Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the rue de Malengin and reading an English newspaper left on the seat by its previous occupant, I discovered to my surprise that I had just died. It appeared that I had driven my car, a modest Morris Minor of a certain age, into the famous Stuart Oak of the Beale estate, the oak so named because planted to commemorate the death of the unfortunate James II. The Stuart Oak had sustained little damage; the Morris Minor was now a twisted, tortured tangle of metal, from which had been extracted a pulped human body supposed to be mine. Our local constable, Timothy "Tubby" Whiting, had identified the car and its owner. Tubby has a palate for local ale and bitter than which there is surely none more refined. He is, moreover, as am I, a Catholic, he rather more persuasively than I. But he is no Sherlock Holmes, or, for that matter, Father Brown.

First I phoned Maude back at the Hall. She, foolish soul, supposed, or pretended to suppose, I was phoning from the Other Side.

"God be praised! Deo gratias! Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh! Oh! Oh!"

"Maude, my love, I'm all right."

"All right, is it? Of course you're all right, there with the Holy Virgin and the blessed angels. Is that the heavenly choir I hear?"

From the jukebox at the back of the bar the late Edith Piaf sang "Milord."

"I mean that I'm not dead."

"Not dead, is it? Of course you're not dead! Everlasting life, that's what He promised us, that's why He bled upon the Cross. Oh, I must tell Father Bastien immediately. Oh, Edmond, I miss you so. Be patient, my love. I'll be with you as soon as I'm allowed." And she hung up.

The silly old woman! It's extraordinary how any sort of excitement brings back the brogue she otherwise abandoned with her youth. She was jesting, surely. Her relief must have found its outlet in hysteria. And, no doubt, mother's ruin has played its part, too. Yes, gin has long been her favorite tipple, and lots of it -- but in a pinch she will make do with whatever's on offer. She likes to pretend that I am the one who has "a little drinking problem"; as for her, why, she drinks merely to be sociable or because she finds herself without company, or because she feels cheerful or because she is bored, or because she is worried or because she's not. We don't talk about it.

Ah, but to remember what she was like when first I knew her, Maude Moriarty, the keeper of my house and my flesh, lo these many years! Ah, the swish of her hips, the rustle of her skirts, the slender shape of her arched above me! And yet to see and hear what she has become as Time's wingèd chariot rattles behind us, nearer and nearer! Gone -- or, at any rate, usually hidden nowadays -- are the wit and the sharp intelligence. She has played an Irish washerwoman for so long, she has at last become one. Too much television, perhaps.

O she had not these ways

When all the wild summer was in her gaze.

Next I phoned Tubby, assuring him that I was as good as on my way home. His shock at hearing my voice was somewhat mitigated by his acceptance of the glad tidings: I was still alive. "But who was it, then, Father," he said almost accusingly, "we squeezed and scraped out of the car? He must've been doing a hundred down the drive." The drive is curved and dangerously steep as it plunges toward the Stuart Oak.

"D'you suppose it was poor Trevor? As I remember, I'd asked him to pick up the car over the weekend. The hand brake had given out, and the foot brake was sluggish." Trevor Stuffins was our local odd-job man, a fellow of my own age and girth.

"Hmmm," said Tubby noncommittally.

"We must pray for his soul."

"He was a Protestant, Father."

"All the more reason."

"If it was Trevor." Tubby was capable of learning from his mistakes.

"Do me a favor, Tubby, go and have a word with Maude. Explain to her I'm still alive -- alive, that is, in the this-worldly sense. Do it gently."

Before leaving the rue de Malengin, I ordered another Calvados and sipped it slowly. My trip to Paris had been a failure, but I felt somehow like one recalled to life.

Could it be that Castignac was right? He had telephoned me a month before, getting to a phone who-knew-how, and warned that Vatican assassins were after me. "Watch out, Edmond, pay attention! They want you dead!" This was followed by a mad cackle. "They will stop at nothing! Nothing!" And then the line went suddenly silent.

But poor Castignac is a lunatic. Why should I have paid attention?

Well, perhaps because of the historical record. Parva, as we say, componere magnis, to compare small things with big, the popes themselves have not been safe from their coreligionists, even as their coreligionists have not been safe from the popes. In the tenth century fully one in three popes died in (nudge-nudge) "suspicious circumstances." Pope Stephen VI was deposed and strangled in prison. And as for murderous corruption, poisonous intrigue, and the savage pursuit of power, why, everyone knows that the popes of the High Renaissance -- the Borgias and their like -- wrote the book, created the template. To step a little closer to our own time, what of John Paul I, who died in 1978 after only thirty-four days on the throne, eh? I point only to the fact, nothing more. Dear me, no. But if so magnificent a beast as a lion may be cruelly slain in his lair, what hope for compassion has a mere flea?

Still, a sense of proportion is a wonderful thing. I cannot truly believe that what I might call the upper hierarchy is after my blood, much as they would like to see me out of a job. No, but rather lower down, though. Father Fred Twombly, say, chairman of the Department of English at Holyrood College, Joliet, Illinois, my undoubted enemy since we were graduate students together in Paris, the wretch who wants my job, the fact that I have it and that he does not gnawing at his vitals like a poisonous mineral. He, I think, if all else failed him, could interfere with the brakes of my car.

But all else has not yet failed him. He thinks he has me by the hip, and it may be that he has. I shall tell you about him anon, and about his latest letter to me, the occasion of my trip to Paris.

Perhaps I should pray.

Perhaps not.

At what moment, I wonder, did I lose my faith? It is a question that has no answer, a semantic dilemma. Have you stopped beating your wife? To lose something -- virginity, say, or a gold watch -- one must first have possessed it. But I put it on, this faith, because it was offered me, it suited me, it was a habit, in both senses of the word. It was at once an ecclesiastical vestment, an outward sign of belief, and a way of life to which I became comfortably -- well, perhaps that word needs modification, but, for the moment, let it stand -- comfortably accustomed.

Which brings the young Castignac's joke to mind. He rose to the exalted rank of papal nuncio, traveled the world -- Guatemala, Lebanon, Hawaii, wherever the Holy See had need of him -- a spy, after his fashion, yes, one of God's spies, gazing into the mystery of things. But he also learned at firsthand the intricacies of the Vatican's inner workings, what the Protestant Milton calls its secret conclaves. And where is he now? As I have said, stark staring mad, terminally bonkers, or so designated, and in the merciful hands of the Sisters of the Five Wounds, a hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well, he always liked America, did Castignac.

But why do I mention him? Ah, yes, the joke. We were seminarians then, you see, the old Adam not quite squeezed out of us. Not out of Castignac, in particular. What a rogue he was! He possessed the blue-black, curly hair, black eyes, and olive skin of the true Corsican, a young Napoleon, but well endowed, hugely endowed. In the dormitory, he slapped away at it. "Down, wicked fellow, down!" and thus revealed himself, grandly tumescent, to our secret envy. "Look," he said one early morning, pointing through the window grille to the courtyard, where an ancient van idled and out of which stepped a young woman. She opened the van's back door and took out a basket. "Th...

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