PRODIGAL PARISH (2016)
Leo F. White
Book Baby, 302 pp.
Mine is one of many New England towns in which Roman Catholic churches are closing faster than standup comics with stage fright. It's also among those in which there is a small band of ageing parishioners who refuse to accept that they are too few in number and too shallow in the pocket to maintain their once-grand but now–crumbling church. It has been closed and desanctified, but quixotic lawsuits persist and the occasional guerilla occupation occur. It is its own statement that more Catholics these days fret over parish closings than the church's ongoing sexual abuse cover-ups.
All of this is to say that Leo F. White's murder mystery Prodigal Parish is no Spotlight. It's mostly a Catholic fantasy novel, and a wooden, clichéd, recycled one at that. It is set in Boston, where St. Theresa's–known as the "Poor People's Parish"–sits on Everton Street* uncomfortably near the well-heeled St. Matthew's. The diocese has already decided to close St. Theresa's once its elderly priest, Father Coniglio, dies. Forget the fact that few will trek to St. Matthew's, which is far too rich for the blood of those in a area that has crossed the line from being a down-market working class neighborhood to a social problems repository of drugs, rough bars, motorcycle gangs, and organized crime. In White's book, men more interested in pomp and money than in social uplift run the Boston Diocese. If Father Moore had his way, St. Theresa's would already be on the auction block. Alas, his otherwise hard-shelled superior, Cardinal Burke, has a soft spot for Father Coniglio, a friend from seminary. Instead, Burke and Moore appoint Father Wesley to be Coniglio's associate priest with the charge of being a combination caregiver/spy. (Moore also wants him to run the old barn into the ground.)
Wesley doesn't want the job for the very reasons Moore thinks he's perfect–it's the old 'hood he left in order to cleanse his long list of failures and sins: heartbreak, an alcoholic family, a stalled boxing career, a DUI fatality, prison…. Wesley is both street- and brain-smart; he realizes that Moore views him as the perfect patsy: the unsavory local who will engineer the demise of a beloved parish. Watch two old Bing Crosby films in which he portrays Father Chuck O'Malley–1944's Going My Way and its 1945 sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's. Mash them, take out the comedy, interject a dose of Karl Malden from On the Waterfront, a tiny bit of Father Ralph de Bricassant from The Thorn Birds, mix in some paste-up locals, and you've got Prodigal Parish. As readers easily surmise from chapter three on, Father Wesley has other plans for his return of the prodigal son act: interjecting new life to St. Theresa's and honoring her social mission. Let the cheap hooks rain down from heaven: a big mutt named Shagtyme, a gang leader with a heart of gold, inept hoodlums, wayward girls, parents with turn-of-the-20th-century, values, an aborted abortion, wide-eyed children…. And did you ever notice that young priests are always ex-boxers? There's nary a lacrosse, tennis, or video game player among them. (Of course, in today's world, there aren't many young ones either!)
This is a classic good-versus-evil tale pitting dreamers against schemers. I give White credit for tossing in a few plot turns I didn't see coming, but most of this book is as predictable as post-sunset darkness. To return to my opening comments, it's a Catholic fantasy novel in which it is possible to turn back the clock and reset the ethos that marked the church's prelapsarian glory days. It's easy to imagine White himself as a sit-in parishioner seeking a reset.
White is better at plot than prose. He repeats words and phrases, skirts histrionic borders, descends into sentimentalism, and oversimplifies conflict resolution. Subplots involving violence and swindle are engaging enough to make Prodigal Parish a non-taxing summer read for Catholic lads and lasses. Alas, I'm not Catholic and I read it in November.
* Postscript: There is an Everton Street in the Dorchester section of Boston and both a St. Matthew's (Ashmont/Dorchester) and a St. Theresa-Avila (West Roxbury). They are not close in distance (6.5 miles) and I have no idea whether White used these as models, though sections of Dorchester fit the social profile he assigns for St. Theresa's Parish.