Thursday, August 27, 2009

James Carroll's “The Prince of Peace”: 25 Years Later

Recently I posted about re-reading Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. I ended the post by saying I was now going to read her sequel, Children of God. I ordered it but, of course, had to wait until it was delivered. In the mean time I picked up Boston columnist James Carroll's 1984 novel Prince of Peace. I'm not sure why, probably because it, also, is about a priest. The description of it said it was about two men who were lifelong best friends, one of whom was a priest, and the woman they both loved. Hmmmmmmmm... sounds familiar. Let me start this by saying I loved 90% of the book and hated 10% and I'll tell you why shortly.

Frank and Michael grew up together in New York City just down the hill from The Cloisters. As boys they would often go to The Cloisters to sit in the garden, smoke cigarettes, and discuss life. They were altar boys together and their growing up, in the 1940s was as naive and as Catholic as my own life was a decade later.

Michael served in Korea where he was a hero and spent 3 years as a POW. When he returns to America he decides to enter the seminary. Frank is an aspiring poet, aspiring beatnik, and ultimately winds up teaching at Fordham, the Jesuit university in New York. Carroll is a masterful writer and, though he spent a lot of time describing the era, the politics, the settings, it was done so well and the story was so compelling that reading it was sheer joy.

As a young deacon, a year away from ordination, Michael meets the very beautiful and feisty Sister Anne Edwards and, because of her passionate commitment to trying to save the school she teaches at, he has his first taste of political activism but things do not go well. In the fallout he introduces Sister Ann to Frank, returns to the seminary, she leaves the convent and goes back to being Carolyn. She has fallen in love with Michael but, because he is unavailable, marries Frank. This was a bit of a stretch for me but, okay, I'll bite, what's up with this?

But, of course, it doesn't matter because the rest of the book is about Father Michael Maguire --- it is about the politics leading up to the war in Vietnam and Michael's efforts to save the children being wounded in the war, and then his fight to stop the war, and then his life as a fugitive and an activist, and a hero to the millions who support his cause. Now, at that period of time, when I was in high school, college, and beyond, the war against the war in Vietnam was very much a part of my life. I was fascinated by and hero-worshipped the resistance. I loved Abby Hoffman. I loved Tom Hayden. And I especially loved the Berrigans, Daniel and Philip, two brother priests whom I found the most incredible people of the era. So reading about Father Michael Maguire was a delicious treat. The character of Michael seemed very close to Fr. Philip Berrigan in places but also to all the resistance-priests who became politically active. It was a volatile time for Catholics not just because of the war but also because our Church was changing thanks to Pope John XXIII's Vatican II Council.

So, here I am thoroughly engrossed in the story. Throughout Michael's most intense period of activism, during his trial for destruction of Federal Property, and then while he is living underground, he is very much supported by Frank and Carolyn. They love him and admire his work and, when he jumps bail rather than go to prison, they are the ones who forfeit the $20K bail they posted. But it is worth it because they believe in him and what he stands for. This is the story of an incredible, brave, heroic, magnificent warrior-hero priest but it is set against the background of my life. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough and then --- BLAM!

Okay, SPOILER ALERT. If you plan to read the book you might want to quit here. I almost wish I had quit there. We come to find out that Fr. Michael has been banging his best friend's wife for the past several years and, when Frank finds out, he is so stung by their betrayal he in turn betrays his lifelong friend, the FBI picks him up, and off to prison he goes.

Now, I'm not going to argue the likelihood or the morality of this. It is what it is and I am a firm believer that a storyteller can tell his story anyway he wants to but... this is the 10% I hate: once again it is the immoral, conscienceless, greediness of a woman that destroys a man. I mean, come on! Was that necessary? Eve offers the apple and Adam says, “I couldn't help it, Frank, the woman gave it to me. Sorry if I betrayed our lifelong bond by banging your wife but she said she loved me.”

Okay, I'm not crazy about a priest breaking his vows but it happens and I'm not crazy about him having an affair with a married woman because that happens too. But it is the blithe, cavalier way that Carolyn (a former nun) continues on in her married life (with his best friend) organizing fund-raisers for him, allowing her husband to support her (and in many ways him) all because she is just so beautiful and she loves him so much. It's such a cliché.

Yes, I know these things can happen but I resented her turning into such a dislikable, self-centered, immoral twit. Is that what the author really thinks of women? Couldn't he come up with something better than that? But, of course, the writer is male and the woman is just so damn beautiful so who cares if she comes across as a selfish brat?

Sigh. The final scene of the book is just gorgeous, haunting, unforgettable. Much of the book is. But I wish the woman they both “loved” had been worthy of their love --- and of the author's respect.
Thanks for reading. 

POSTSCRIPT: I just realized, is it a coincidence that the nun who turns into the evil temptress in this book was Sister Ann Edwards, and the married woman/scientist who befriends Emilio and accompanies him to Rakhat is named .... Ann Edwards. Hmmmmm..........


  1. Makes you wonder if the story was deliberately planned by the author, in sort of a "HAH! They'll never see this coming!" way, or if perhaps his own experiences led to that plot twist.

    Hate to say it, but I have seen way too many real life careers, friendships, and families tossed aside for just the sort of woman you are describing, or (less frequently) for her male counterpart.

    I don't view it so much as the villainy of the woman, but the arrogance of the men; their utter stupidity at believing they won't get caught, or their willingness to abandon every principle for a nice bit of tail.

  2. Oh, I don't disagree with your remarks. What I take issue with is that an author of a book created a woman in such a cliche and obnoxious manner --- was that really the best he could come up with for her? It's the oldest cliche in the world --- Paradise lost because of womanly wiles.

    I've also noticed that there are too many male authors who create shallow female characters with dislikable behaviors which they excuse by talking about how beautiful she is. I think it is the author who has been seduced by his own (shallow) invention and he let's her get away with obnoxious behavior because he's besotted by his imaginary woman. Not all male writers do this, certainly not Jim Harrison, but too many of them.

    Well, Children of God came so I am now lost in that...

  3. I always think they are writing the woman they wish they were screwing or wish they hadn't married.


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