Monk Dawson (1969) is Piers Paul Read's third novel. Plenty of spoilers ahead.

The narrator is Bobby Winterman, a friend of the main character, Eddie Dawson. Structurally, Bobby occupies the place of Nick in The Great Gatsby, though he (Read?) lacks Nick's (Fitzgerald's?) gift for evocative prose. The two meet as youths at a private Catholic school, where Eddie becomes certain he has a vocation, perhaps to religious life, but certainly "to benefit humanity." His housemaster Father Timothy questionably persuades him to join the monastery attached to the school. The only call the narrator can hear emanates from the flesh, and after school Bobby abandons the faith altogether. Thus the boys part ways spiritually and materially, and until the end, Bobby describes Eddie's career with a certain icy (Winterman) skepticism.

The friends occasionally meet to catch up, but the distance between them causes some problems for the logic of the novel. If Dawson isn't a significant part of Winterman's life, how does he know so much about him? We're often taken inside Dawson's head in such a way that the "first-person onlooker" narration seems unlikely. We watch the monk respond to Vatican II with a liberal's enthusiasm, stirring up trouble at the school long after Winterman's time. We listen to Mrs Dawson's self-centered, rambling monologues, delivered to her son, alone, in her kitchen. After Dawson is translated from the York monastery to a secular position in London, we witness a shocking confessional scene (obviously private). We watch Dawson's spiritual burnout, his retreat with the Trappists (which fails to renew his faith), his exuberance after being released from his vows, and his erratic flailing through loneliness, women, and suicidal depression. This is a lot of spiritual ground to cover, and it invites penetrating psychological analysis. Bernanos could have done wonders with Eddie Dawson.

In the end, I probably wouldn't have objected to the device, which after all is pretty common, except that Winterman is dull. He provides minimal commentary on events, and after the first few chapters, his irony becomes too muted to enjoy, whether you like jabs at the Church, or you anticipate some eventual comeuppance. Winterman simply isn't necessary for 200 pages. He plays an important role in the conclusion (see his confusion on 218), but by this time it's almost too late to take an interest.

Perhaps anticipating such a response, Read has Winterman give a disclaimer on his narration early in the novel: "What follows is, like much of this story, my own embroidered reconstruction of events" (12). Technically, the novel holds together, but Winterman seems like a lost opportunity.

Dawson's post-Christian period occupies the bulk of the novel. The title of the novel refers to his second career as a journalist. To drum up circulation, his editors ask him to use "Monk Dawson" as a byline, emphasizing his outsider/insider perspective on religious subjects. Initially, he writes these pieces as a humanist-liberated-from-dogma-to-science. His first real friend is a former catechumen, Jenny (very wealthy), and their reunion blossoms into love. It isn't a very sturdy relationship, however. In one of his more dramatic and revealing interruptions of the tale, the narrator refers to Eddie and Jenny's "sexual exchanges" as "after all, the basis of a relationship of this kind" [155]). Shortly after a decadent party involving an abortive black mass, Jenny leaves Dawson for a younger, more radical beau (with a B.A. from Berkeley; the year is 1968/9). Around this time Dawson begins to flirt with communism (perhaps he realized the threat of the Berkeley boy?). He quickly moves in with another former parishioner (Theresa, middle class), but their relationship is even weaker: there's more late-night TV watching than sex. When things go south with Theresa, he nearly loses his mind.

Binding together Dawson's various meanderings is the question of vocation. If he really has been called to "benefit humanity," how can he best do so? In the Church, forgiving his parishioners' sins? As a writer, exposing false dogma and exalting "scientific" and "technocratic" solutions to social problems? Fighting in print on behalf of the proletariat? It must be said that Dawson doesn't go entirely off the rails. His first lover abandons him with the Berkeley boy to join a group of Venezuelan guerrillas. These socialites attract official attention and the guerillas are captured, killed, or scattered. The lover winds up in prison, while Jenny, it is implied, escapes only by serving as mistress to the Venezuelan colonel who captures them.

Dawson avoids this disgrace, but he is nevertheless miserable. One virtue of the book is that it offers a counter-narrative "take joy in the journey" cliche. Often enough (not always) the implication of this pseudo-wisdom is that our ends don't matter. This is a (temporarily) convenient way to avoid thinking about both death and God. Dawson's decline shows that those who have "outgrown" religion can sometimes be over-confident in their maturity. 

On the first page of the novel, Dawson's parents introduce him to the headmaster of the school:

'This is Eddie,' the mother said to the headmaster.
'I feel sure he should be called Edward now,' said the father.
'Oh no, dear,' said the mother. 'He's always been called Eddie.'
'It doesn't really matter,' said Father Francis in his dry voice. 'Here he will be called Dawson.'

This exchange could be read in several different ways: that the monks will turn the boy into a man; that they will give him an identity anticipated by neither parent; that the parents have competing views on how to raise a child. Most important for the novel, I think, is the way the mother establishes Dawson's identity as essentially childish. His journey from monk to journalist to faux-communist to TV-dope reveals that he has never, despite all of his self-congratulation, grown up -- that he merely apes the postures of those he admires or envies. I won't give away the details of the conclusion, but there are certain virtues to being childlike.

Piers Paul Read. Monk Dawson. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970. Print.


Posted
AuthorSeth Holler