A True Masterwork: Paul Xylinides’s An American Pope ★★★★★
Posted: 10 May 2015 11:14 AM PDT
In recent years the lines between self-publisher and traditional publisher, author and reader, have become blurred. Consequently, the word ‘masterpiece’ has been thrown around with abandon and thrust upon novels that don’t deserve it, a trend which has all but stripped the term of its gravitas and meaning. Paul Xylinides’s indie debut novel, through the magic and skill of his stunning prose, attempts to show how sexual dysfunction and the weight of history have affected the methodology of the Catholic Church’s teachings, as well as the corruption of man’s soul and his separation from nature, and in doing so, not only fulfils the criteria of a great work, but is wholly deserving of the term ‘masterpiece’.
Early in An American Pope a notebook is unearthed. It once belonged to a seventeenth century priest, Jocelyn LeBoeuf, who, after scandalous sexual relationships with two boys and a fellow priest, is exiled to America to engage the natives. Father Mallory and Sister Marie-Ange Beaujolais have been brought together to research his life in order to see if LeBoeuf qualifies as a true martyr and therefore worthy of beautification and sainthood. This is an attempt by a forward-thinking American pope to endorse the intermingling of the sacred and the profane in a modern world where sexual proclivities are diverse: ‘inclusiveness and controversy’ through the canonisation of LeBoeuf may help the church to increase Her stature and keep up with the times.
Well, the church isn’t quite there yet, a shortcoming felt by Mallory and Beaujolais who, throughout their investigation of LeBoeuf, grow close in a relationship poignantly described. Indeed all the characters in the book who are connected to the church or its hieratic code find themselves on a creaking bridge between their duty and the demands of human sensuality and other everyday needs. There is the obvious weighty turmoil that comes from this, although, surprisingly, humour also. The comic and the absurd are present here, particularly in Father Florentino’s love of ‘chocolate’ and cigars, the significance of the finger-clad rings of the cardinals, and Cardinal Doggio’s courtship with Sofi. But, of course, it is tragedy that remains predominant, particularly between a modern day priest and his love of a young boy – undeniably shocking – the gateway to Xylinides’s most courageous, original and staggering illumination of what might compel a priest to feel this way. Xylinides, fully aware of how such events are portrayed by the media, takes great care to show how sexual abuse within the church might take place, all with the delicacy and expertise of a writer truly in command of their craft.
As already alluded to, sexual aberration, as seen through the church’s eyes, also affected the seventeenth century priest LeBoeuf, the true heart and most compelling character of this extraordinary novel. He is featured in his own chapters, in which Xylinides gives us the most engaging, beautiful, weird, horrifying, hope-filled, and mysterious passages. And as much as a meditation of faith and man’s place in nature, these parts of the book are simply a great adventure story in their own right – a Heart of Darkness written by a Cormac McCarthy on a very good day, a Blood Meridian at its most spectacularly beautiful. Enigmatic and poetic, the following is LeBoeuf’s first contact with the natives:
“LeBoeuf… applied himself to deciphering the shadowy movements of the gathered forest when an overlay of cloud released the sun and its light reflected copper red in the undergrowth. Human skin made its appearance known as soon as he identified it, loin-clothed and daubed with earth colours. The raven hair put an eye in the deepest shadows. Poisonous hues across the brow gave warning and complemented the feathered heads of arrows clustered within easy reach above the shoulder.”
— An American Pope
The natives themselves are also struggling to come to terms with this clash of cultures, these strange white people who killed their god only to then worship him. As Sun Without Clouds says of them, “They are as much raccoon and wolverine as they are men – sly, lumbering and thievish.” Later, however, the natives do find a degree of respect for these invaders, even if this does come from LeBoeuf’s use of a magnifying glass, after which they call him Fire From The Sky.
The journey of recognition and a mutual respect between Indian and white man is all played out through the wonderful scenes of camp life, clan wars, game-chasing, and surviving the harsh winter. LeBoeuf has to survive the cold, the vast plains and the mysterious forest, as well as the tumultuous racking of his soul and a compulsion to align the spiritualism of his own European faith and the naturalistic essence of the natives.
Without doubt a masterpiece, An American Pope is a brilliantly written, thought-provoking and daring journey into the dark side of faith and an exploration of man’s place in the cosmos, and as such deserves not only your time, but recognition by the publishing industry as a great addition to literature itself.