Be Near Me, by Andrew O'Hagan

Falling from grace
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The Independent Culture

Andrew O'Hagan's novel is narrated by David Anderton, parish priest and fish out of water in Dalgarnock, a small Ayrshire town. He is disgraced when accused of sexual assault on a teenage boy he has befriended, and his downfall also provides an unsentimental reading of the larger setting. Dalgarnock longs for the satisfaction and justification of an enemy it can see and touch. In Anderton, it finds one.

O'Hagan has the power and exactitude to take the measure of a politically inert ex-industrial society subsisting on the long-chewed bones of sectarian and ethnic prejudices. He writes with bracing clarity, as if the sentimental despoliation of realism by television's treatment of working-class life had never happened. Yet, although much contemporary writing seems myopic and trivial in comparison, Be Near Me is simply too short, as if scaled down from its true ambitions, provoking admiration and regret in equal measure.

One brief Balzacian encounter with a bride's father, "a man more strange and more phoney to himself than he ever thought possible", leaves the reader hungry for more. Such men "hate the way things have gone, forever conjuring former worlds in which individual performance ceded to the collective habits of the community. That world had disappeared. Nolan knew it had disappeared and didn't seriously mourn it. He liked to cast a cold eye on the present, though he, in fact, was the present, the coldness beholding itself." Some novelists rehearse the world and some disclose it. O'Hagan is of the latter party.

"Disappointing" is the wrong word for his handling of the priest's earthly afterlife, but Anderton disavows the imaginative authority he might wield. Instead, he accepts his weakness and public disgrace, continuing to exercise a forgiveness that can be hard to distinguish from contempt. He is incapable of lying, or of finding depth where none exists.

There are no sentimental "learning experiences" here. Anderton pushes all the angry buttons in Dalgarnock, being apparently English (though Edinburgh-born), relatively patrician, an Ampleforth- and Oxford-educated aesthete. When he asks the music teacher at the Catholic school to play some decent hymns, he is told that the pupils like the feeble contemporary stuff. When Anderton replies that they also like Eminem but that doesn't mean playing him in assembly, he crosses a line into the territory called "patronising", familiar to anyone who has worked in the public sector. Failure to abide by mediocrity means doom is close.

What counts is not so much the plot, visible from the beginning, as Anderton's acceptance of his disgrace. His sense of life is simply not barren enough to be tolerable locally. He gives himself away to a group of teenagers, taking them on outings, listening to their depressing if spirited attempts to build identities from the MTV drivel they think is their own. Eventually, he crosses the line into sharing a drink and some E, and into kissing the boy, after which he must be destroyed. Given that paedophilia here appears to have been the most exciting thing to happen to the working class since Rupert Murdoch, Anderton can hardly expect distinctions to be drawn between his stupid but affectionate indiscretion and the deeds of real predators.

Where O'Hagan's earlier Our Fathers dealt with the disappointments of socialism as a creed perhaps too good for mere people, Be Near Me shows a priest at work in a society sunk back into crushing ignorance and shoring a few fragments of fear and prejudice against the wreck of hopes it can scarcely remember entertaining. Education has failed. Socialism has been allowed to fail. Things cannot go on this way, but Anderton knows they probably will.

Be Near Me is also a fine book about love and friendship: the male love of Anderton's life, killed in a car crash; a not-quite romantic friendship with his parish housekeeper Mrs Poole; and time spent with his mother, who does what no one else can bear to do, and lets him be himself, which is all he has to offer.

Sean O'Brien's translation of Dante's 'Inferno' appears in October from Picador