The nun's tale and the prisoner's tale. (Books).
by Joseph Caldwell
351 pages, $13.95 (paper)
WHAT does the writer of a masterpiece do for an encore? Joseph's Caldwell's The Uncle from Rome, published in 1992, was a profound tale of a gay man's transforming experience in Naples after the death of his lover from AIDS. After a ten-year hiatus Caldwell has produced Bread for the Baker's Child, a novel about the interconnected lives of a middle-aged brother and sister. Although it does not match the grandeur of his previous work, Caldwell's second novel offers its own set of insights into the human condition.
The premise of the story is set forth in plain terms on page one. Philip, a gay man, is in prison for embezzlement. Unbeknownst to the authorities, he donated the money to the religious order in which his sister Rachel is a nun. There are no dramatic disclosures about the motive for Philip's crime, which was simply the act of a disgruntled employee. Nor is much time devoted to Rachel's dilemma over whether the Order should return the stolen money, which the Mother Superior quickly decided to keep. Instead, the drama is the progression of the brother and sister as they move through their own psychological mazes.
The story is told in chapters that alternate between Philip and Rachel's point of view. Philip's main concern is his relationship with an inmate named Starbuck, who has asked Philip to pose as his lover to protect him from the unwanted attention of two other prisoners, Butte and Folger. Philip is initially repulsed by Starbuck who, in addition to being unattractive, is not very bright. Although twice Starbuck's age, Philip still holds onto his self-image as a stunning youth, and sees Starbuck as beneath him. Nevertheless, Philip reluctantly takes on the role of pretend lover, which entitles him to gifts of candy bars and potato chips, but also forces him to put up with Butte and Folger's vulgar comments and cleverly couched insults.
Philip joins the prison baseball team, cracking bat to ball to vent his mounting anger at Butte and Folger. During one game, Butte and Folger attempt an escape and are shot in front of the other prisoners. The panic raised by this incident leads Philip and Starbuck to consummate their relationship. Still, it's not clear why Philip's feelings for Starbuck have changed, if in fact they have. It is only after they've had sex that Philip's transformation is evident, and he is delighted by his newfound love.
It is never in doubt, however, that Philip's bliss is destined to be short-lived. Earlier, another prisoner had warned Philip that one of the guards likes to watch the inmates have sex, forcing performances under the threat of punishment. A confrontation between Philip, Starbuck, and the prison guard becomes inevitable. When it does come, the scene is much more nuanced than might be expected. This confrontation culminates in an act of violence that, while criminal, seems justifiable on the highest moral plane. Nevertheless, the outcome is devastating for both Philip and Starbuck. The tragedy is only deepened by the disclosure of the heart-wrenching circumstances surrounding Starbuck's wrongful incarceration.
Rachel's chapters are less compelling than those of her brother. Her days are spent tending to a dying Mother Superior and contemplating her future as the Order prepares to dissolve. Her early chapters move slowly, burdened by an excess of detail. The momentum picks up as Rachel, who's an artist, begins work on a large-scale painting of the Last Supper. Between brush-strokes she waits on the Mother Superior, imagining herself to be an immigrant girl named Brigit "with a flourishing head of auburn hair" who would "mutter her complaints about overwork and the general foolishness of the rich." But this image disappears when she reaches up to touch her head to discover "the short ill-combed hair of Sister Rachel, who ... knew only too well that she was neither sly nor impenitent, and would never marry the butcher's boy as Brigit would have done."
The focus of Rachel's story is intended to be her recovery from a mental breakdown brought on by the death of her pupils in a fire at the church's school. This recovery appears to be assisted by her work on the painting, whose unveiling is preceded by much anticipation. But when the moment comes, it provides no true insight into Rachel or her illness. The most interesting part of Rachel's journey comes at the end of the book, when she and the other nuns perform Mass, something forbidden to women. They do this not as an act of rebellion, but of necessity when the priest fails to arrive. Performing these rituals allows the women to reclaim their religion and their sense of self.
There are only a few scenes in which Rachel and Philip are together. In one that takes place in a prison meeting room, Rachel reveals the details of a family tragedy, but it fails to carry the intended punch. In a later scene, Philip receives an unexpected visit from Rachel, who impersonates someone else to gain entry to his cell. Speaking in coded terms so the guard won't understand, Philip recalls when, as children, he and Rachel painted pretend lilac bushes on the side of the garage. Philip's words, which are imbued with genuine love and evoke the easy joys of childhood, carry far more emotional weight than the grand revelations of the earlier scene.
Bread for the Baker's Child is not a great book, but it does contain moments of absolute clarity that transcends the plot's limitations. It is hoped that the next time Caldwell writes a novel he'll choose a subject more consistently engaging-and that he won't wait another ten years to do it this time.
Juliet Sarkessian's first novel, Trio Sonata, is forthcoming from Southern Tier Editions.
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|Title Annotation:||Bread for the Baker's Child|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2002|
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