But seriously, a priest walks into a bar with a babe on his arm and uncovers a devious plot by a fanatical religious group to usurp the papacy...
It's not a joke. It's the plot of THE BOOK OF Q, Jonathan Rabb's latest novel.
What on the surface might seem highly implausible and a bit cartoonish (truth be told, it is, and that's a great deal of the book's charm) is handled deftly by Rabb, whose first novel, THE OVERSEER, gained a devoted following for the author. That fan club --- which, given the previous novel's similar tone and content, probably includes folks who appreciate tales chock full of arcana and cranky world dominators --- likely will increase with this effort.
The story begins with the loss of innocence (in more ways than one) of one of the best and brightest prospective priests. Ian Pearse, whose experiences in a Bosnian wasteland tear him out of the snug cocoon of his all-too-American upbringing (seems that Pearse's parents spend a great deal of time at "The Cape," and they find his decision to become a priest "a little too Catholic") is the quintessential thriller priest: too hip for his own good, Notre Dame educated, a former major-league baseball prospect and a preternaturally handsome neophyte on the receiving end of enough captivated women's passes to make us wonder at his resolve. Forgiveness is in order for Rabb, though, for fashioning such a chimera in his protagonist: Pearse is likable and ably carries the plot, and his boyish charm is interspersed with the sort of indecision, passion, and occasional stupidity that makes him, above all, human. A good baseball joke at Pearse's expense near the end of the novel more than makes up for any unnecessarily pat passages in the beginning.
In a moment of weakness, as the fighting in Bosnia becomes more intense, Pearse and Petra, a beautiful freedom fighter, fall into each other's arms and...well, the rest is academic. Eight years later, when Pearse finds himself back in Bosnia, this time looking for Quelle ("The Source") --- the "Q" of the title and a document that the Manicheans, a sect long thought to be defunct, need in order to gain control of the Church --- he also discovers that he has a ready-made family waiting for him in the form of Petra and Ivo, a son.
From there, of course, nothing is as it seems. The plot is worthy of Umberto Eco, whose paper chase epics based on obscure manuscripts and cultish figures enthralled armchair archivists, aspiring theologians and philosophers, and conspiracy theorists in THE NAME OF THE ROSE and FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM.
Like Eco, Rabb's plotting is intricate and tight, and he introduces a cast of thousands as Pearse makes his way from Bosnia to the Vatican to Phôtinus and back again. Like Eco, Rabb requires much of his reader --- a scorecard to keep track of the good guys and bad guys wouldn't be a bad idea. The payoff, though, is worth the effort.
The author's ear for language and his pacing make this one of those rare efforts that rewards the reader for being quick on the uptake. To his credit, Rabb, for the most part, stays away from the sort of stock shoot-em-up fare that has become de rigeur in the world of "reality publishing" and books "ripped from the headlines."
Even though the story focuses on the Catholic Church and its adherents, it never gives in to the temptation to become about religion. Didacticism is not Rabb's deal, and religion in this case is more a context than a bludgeoning tool. The novel is a study on aspiration, treachery, mass delusion, and the tenuous nature of our realities: "In a single phrase, Menippus had brought down two thousand years of church authority... No need to interpret. No need to explain. No need for a Luther to divine his priesthood of all believers from an ambiguous text. The message here was clear as day... Pull out the pin and the entire structure falls." Rabb's restraint is refreshing and his storytelling gripping. The result is a book that can be intricate, clever and human without delaminating into Hollywood schmaltz or smugness.
Cabalistic intrigue, goons (some of them, predictably, not too smart and some of them, predictably, too smart for their own good), cultural commentary, and enthralling descriptions of beautiful, exotic places that hold centuries-old secrets --- anything more, and you may as well be asking for Eco himself.
Reviewed by Patrick Smith on January 21, 2011
The Book of Q