Father David Anderton, the protagonist and narrator of Andrew O’Hagan’s subtle third novel, has never been, it would seem, a very good priest. Be Near Me, set in the Scottish town of Dalgarnock in 2005, is Father David’s account of his fifty-seventh year, the year of his unraveling, or his downfall, or his rebirth—depending upon how you look at it. Sent, at his own request, to Dalgarnock’s humble parish of St. John Ogilvie, after years spent in “pastoral oblivion” in Blackpool, David Anderton befriends Lisa Nolan and Mark McNulty, two beer-swilling, joint-smoking, pill-popping adolescents from his world religions class at the local Catholic school. Through these unlikely attachments he finds, as he eventually concedes to his bishop, that “our lives are liable to catch up with us.”
There are many possible explanations of what Father David means. The most obvious, but least humanly accurate, of these is that his sexual desires, repressed during his thirty years in the priesthood, will, perforce, find an outlet. Indeed, the novel’s central plot could be condensed into the snappy headline that appears in Dalgarnock’s Daily Record: “‘The Face of Evil,’ it said. ‘English Priest in Ayrshire Kiddie Abuse Scandal.’”
Needless to say, however, Be Near Me is not a schematic account of the sexual scandals of the cloth, or even a religious version of Zoe Heller’s probing but fast-paced Notes on a Scandal (2003), which charts the illicit sexual relationship between a schoolteacher and her adolescent pupil. In spite of the forward propulsion of the novel’s premise, O’Hagan, a lyrical and deeply thoughtful writer, has created a circular rather than a linear narrative, one in which the single, chaste, and culminating kiss that brings about Father David’s arrest is, while not wholly beside the point, not exactly the point, either. This is a literary undertaking more nuanced, and more ambitious, than plot summary can allow: in Father David Anderton, O’Hagan is giving voice to the full, disparate, often contradictory breadth of a character whose fragmented and alienated self has only rarely, and not for many years, attained some sort of unity, a state of being in one’s skin.
O’Hagan is exploring, through this fiction, the deepest questions of selfhood, self-knowledge, and authenticity. How far has David Anderton taken his mother’s admonishment, to his much younger self, to “put your faith in strangers. Sometimes it’s nice to just be on the surface of things”—and if he has been successful in this surface life, why can he no longer sustain it? In Father David’s relationships with Lisa and with Mark (upon whom he will plant his fateful kiss), the priest is drawn to many things; but chiefly, it would seem, to an enviable self-possession that amounts to selflessness, or at least forgetfulness-of-self.
Father David observes, early on, of Mark:
There are people who notice the power of themselves in any conversation. They won’t be put down, and …