BOOK REVIEW / Traffic jams and tattoos: Scott Bradfield on a remarkable American novelist

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The priest: A gothic romance: Thomas M Disch - Millennium pounds 16.99

Thomas M Disch has been one of America's most original and accomplished writers of the last three decades, but few readers ever heard of him until he pissed off the Catholic Church.

Disch's public battle with the Archdiocese of New York began a few years ago when his one-act monologue in blank verse, The Cardinal Detoxes, was performed by the RAPP Theater on East 4th Street ('as far off-off Broadway as Broadway can get,' Disch tells me). Since blank verse is not the preferred medium of most New York City playgoers, The Cardinal Detoxes had to wait for Cardinal O'Connor to label it opprobrious and offensive before it became a cause celebre, and the audiences began pouring in.

The RAPP Theater, it turned out, was owned by the New York Archdiocese, who subsequently tried to shut it down. 'They did it on the grounds that my play offended Catholic feelings,' Disch explains. 'Ultimately, the Church was trying to argue they could evict any tenant from its properties simply for not respecting Catholic beliefs. They could evict someone for having an abortion, say, or for being gay or for living in unmarried cohabitation.' In response to the Church's eviction notice, various civil rights lawsuits were filed on the play's behalf, and after 30 years of writing numerous books in a variety of genres, Disch finally became 'famous overnight'.

The play's monologist is a Cardinal being forcibly 'detoxed' by the Church after causing a serious traffic collision; while the Church takes steps to silence him forever, the Cardinal decides to defend himself the only way he knows how:

'Then this is what I mean to do, the same / As any minor Mafioso caught / And facing time: I'll sing. I'll tell those things / We Cardinals and Archbishops say / Among ourselves the secret wisdom of / The Church, its policies and stratagems / Beginning with the obvious. Just guess, / Abortion, naturally. It is the cause / To knit our ever-fewer faithful few / By giving them an enemy to fight, / Those murderous liberal bitches who refuse / To be a Mom.'

If The Cardinal Detoxes outlines in miniature Disch's complaints against the Catholic Church, his new novel, The Priest, elevates those complaints into a Grand Guignol black comedy, in which priests consort with satanic tattoo-artists, rape altar boys, murder their own illegitimate offspring and kidnap young girls from abortion clinics, forcing them to give birth to their foetuses at gunpoint.

According to the novel's hero, a gay priest named Father Mabbley, evil flourishes in the Catholic hierarchy because the Vatican has made hypocrisy 'a condition of employment . . . If we're not hypocrites about being gay, then we're hypocrites about birth control or abortion. We preach one thing in public but in the confessional it's another story.' Whenever Disch's priests commit any sort of horrific crime, they're always quick to absolve themselves afterwards by means of the same corny old rituals.

A wild exotic mix of Lewis's The Monk, Hitchcock's Psycho, and Puzo's The Godfather, The Priest is not only extraordinarily funny, but almost joyously blasphemous. Designed as tightly as the best sort of thriller, it keeps you on your toes, but never allows you to stop thinking for a moment.

Since Disch depicts his evil priests as homophobic child-molesters who once tortured heretics in the same way they today torment pregnant young girls, I couldn't help telephoning him and asking him (somewhat glibly) if he didn't think he was being a little too hard on the Catholic Church. He replied: 'I'm being as hard as I can be. I think they deserve it.'

Born in 1940 and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Disch came to London in the early Sixties and, along with a number of fellow expatriates, such as Pamela Zoline and John Sladek, began producing his most significant work for Michael Moorcock's New Worlds.

Disch's first few books are deeply eccentric, yet they are still generically true science fiction novels, but with Camp Concentration in 1967, and the Oulipo-inspired 334 in 1972 (the title describes a narrative diagram along which the novel plots its course) Disch began 'opening up' the science fiction novel until there wasn't much science fiction left in it at all.

Virtually freed from generic constraints, Disch began roving among the varieties of literary production with a wooden mallet, breaking apart everything in sight and creating his own weird, rigorously designed and uniquely Dischian landscapes. In the last 30 years he has written hundreds of reviews, many volumes of short stories, some opera librettos, one TV-tie-in-novelisation, a Rebecca- like gothic send-up Clara Reeve (under the pseudonym Leonie Hargreave) and the world's first interactive computer novel Amnesia. And this is not to mention his significant reputation as a poet: under the name Tom Disch he has published a number of collections, including the Best Way to Figure Plumbing (1972) and Here I Am, There You Are, Where Were We? (1984). Even while the world wasn't paying him much attention, Disch was keeping busy.

I asked him if he enjoyed being notorious, and Disch didn't have toconsider the question for very long. 'I do enjoy it, I must say. Simply because it affords me an opportunity to say what I think, and have people listen. Attention, basically. Usually, people don't pay much attention to off-off Broadway plays.'

And if there's one thing Disch's work eminently deserves, it's attention.

'But how else are we to change the church, Mab?' Alexis demanded. His tone of zestful debate had developed an edge of petulance. For if Father Mabbley were a hypocrite in these matters, Father Clareson had to be accounted one equally, and while he was perfectly ready to acknowledge any number of other sins with equanimity, Father Clareson prided himself on his intellectual honesty - at least when he was among friends.

'Has anyone been trying to change the church? I hadn't noticed. Everyone I know is just looking out for his ass. Isn't any homosexual act still a mortal sin? Don't teenagers still attempt suicide when they realise they're gay and they can't help it? You did Alex. You told me so.'

'That's not fair, Mab. I told you that in strictest confidence.' 'But you must see my point.'