It has been a long time since I've stayed up half the night to finish a book. It's been a long time since I read a book in one day because I just could not put it down. Yesterday that happened and I'm a little groggy today because of it but so pleased to be able to write about this book, Confessions by Ryne Douglas Pearson. It is only available as an ebook so, when I read about it, I went to the Kindle store on Amazon and downloaded it instantly - ah, the joy of literary instant gratification!
Pearson is best known as a writer of thrillers but this is a thriller with a difference. It opens in the emergency room of a hospital where Father Michael Jerome, a police department chaplain, is called to minister to a policeman wounded in the line of duty. The policeman will be fine but, while he is there, Fr. Jerome is told there is a dying man, wounded in the same incident, who is asking for a priest. Fr. Jerome goes to him but in the process of preparing to administer the Last Rites he hears something so shocking, so devastating that he, much to his own horror, finds he cannot administer the sacrament. Five years earlier his beloved younger sister Katie was killed during a convenience store robbery and here, asking for his ministry, Fr. Jerome discovers, is her killer. This is the first blow to his long cherished identity as a good priest.
What follows is a visceral, at times heart-breaking investigation by Fr. Jerome of the truth of his sister's death. The story is told in the first person from the priest's point of view and throughout the twists and turns of the plot his rigorous self-examination and attempts to make sense of an increasingly insane situation are told with a beauty and lyricism of language that had me breathless at times. In describing his feelings at having to revisit the agony of his sister's death he says, "I have tried to bury that time. To lay a veneer over memory that, on occasion, has allowed snippets to invade my consciousness. Now the thin skin of manufactured self deceit has been shredded, and what was, is again."
Pearson's ability to write exquisite prose with an economy of language elevates what could be a darn-good crime novel into the realm of literary fiction in which the central character takes not only through the increasingly mind-numbing realities of what has happened but also invites us in to his own growing pain, fearfulness, anger, frustration, and sense of betrayal. He discovers that he knew very little about the beloved sister whose loss has been a constant pain in his life. He discovers an anger and a violence in himself that shakes his belief in who he is both as a priest and as a man. Ultimately, as the final, bitter truth is revealed he also discovered that he and he alone was the one who did not know what happened. He had imagined himself the protector, the comforter, and the solace of the people he loved when, in fact, he was the last to know.
Because I recently wrote a novel about a good priest in a bad situation (Each Angel Burns) I was particularly mesmerized by Pearson's creation of Fr. Jerome and I was impressed with how believable I found him. Writing about good clergy is difficult because the average reader often does not understand the thin line between transcendent Faith and contact with brutal reality that most clerics walk. When Fr. Jerome is at home in the rectory where he lives with his fellow priests we see the poignancy of their lives - vegging out in front of television programs with a chocolate bar, an old priest who drinks himself to sleep so as not dream of the horrors he witnessed as a missionary in Rwanda, the tentative attempts of brother priests to guard one another from "near occasions of sin". When Fr. Jerome encounters Christine, his sister's best friend from childhood, we see him struggle with his increasing feelings toward her, questioning whether they are nostalgia, situational, or real.
One of the things I most appreciate about Pearson's story is his avoidance of nearly every cliché imaginable. So often it would have been easy to add a cheap thrill to the storyline that he deftly side-stepped By the end of the story I found myself aching for this man who had lived his whole life trying to be good, honorable, and of service, discovering that he no longer knew who he was or whether he could rely on what he once cherished.
As readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of James Lee Burke whose character Dave Robicheaux I find one of the most complex and fascinating in contemporary American literature. Fr. Michael Jerome could be another such character. This is a beautifully crafted book that I recommend to anyone who wants a thriller with both brains and heart.