The Globe and Mail - Books

A tale of abuse and enlightenment
By Jim Bartley

The Confessions of Nipper Mooney
By Ed Kavanagh

Creative Books / Killick.  1-89429-428-9.  325 pages.  $19.95

When I was a child, the only people you could ever expect to see in school--other than students and school employees--were the priest, the public health nurse, and, occasionally, the Schools Inspector. That seemed right and proper; who would want to come to a school if they didn't absolutely have to? Certainly we never saw a writer in school. If, on some bright May morning in 1963, Miss Hynes had announced to our grade four class that an author was coming to visit, I'm sure we wouldn't have known how to react. Is this person going to give us a needle? Tell us why good Catholics go to heaven? Ask us to spell a difficult word? One of our first questions would probably have been, "What's an author?" When told that authors were people who wrote books, we would have stared at each other incredulously. People? People wrote books? We knew, of course, that a person's name was usually affixed to a book's cover, but equating that name with an actual human being required a mental stretch of which few of us were capable. And if they were human, weren't they all dead? Surely a dead person wasn't coming to visit.

Told his father is in heaven, he doesn't doubt it. In Nipper's world, a boy might be stolen by fairies, or suddenly become a spaniel, or not be a tangible thing at all. Conscious of mysteries, he nonetheless has a sharp eye for sacred contradictions, thinking it absurd that the nuns in his church school "were so covered up, when Jesus, nailed to the wooden crosses hanging on their chests, was just about naked."

In class one day, Nipper's friend Paddy asks a visiting foreign missionary why God gives them proper houses and enough food while He lets people in Peru starve and die in earthquakes. The young Peruvian nun is willing to engage the issue, but once she's offsite, Paddy's audacious challenge to faith earns him only a strapping and a week's detention.

Nipper finds more enlightened spiritual guidance in Brendan, a gnarled old man who years before was banned from the local church for posing heretical questions. The two tramp through the woods to a clifftop overlooking the sea, where they offer sensuous prayers to Brigid, patron saint of farmers and poets, "milkmaid of the smooth white palms . . . of the clustering brown hair . . . ever excellent woman, golden sparkling flame." Later, the charms of a more palpable Brigid seduce Nipper into puppyish rollabouts in the hayloft.

President Kennedy is shot; the Beatles begin to dominate the airwaves; there is a housefire and a child's funeral. Just as the narrative begins to feel too reliant on easy sentiment, it raises the ante, transporting Nipper to St. John's and a dayschool run by the notorious Christian Brothers.

Mercifully for all concerned, All Angels School (a wry misnomer) seems to lack practising pedophiles, though the brothers do insist on ritual servings of other abuse. Recycling saintly martyrdom on their young charges, they scar bodies and minds, sometimes permanently.

Kavanagh's style is brisk and engaging, blending gentle humour with ruthless portrayals of men twisted into monsters by the shackles of their piety. The book offers some of the least "writerly" prose I've seen in some time, spinning its tale from character and incident, with a simplicity that conjures vivid pictures in the mind. 

– Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer

Ed Kavanagh, 18 Parsons Avenue, Mount Pearl, NL, Canada A1N 1P6    Phone: 709-364-6386   email