Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan

He cultivates roses and savors wine and haute cuisine. He loves Chopin—indeed, any music with “a sigh in it”—and is devoted to Proust’s colossal novel. He is David Anderton, a 56-year old Oxford-educated, English priest. As interesting as these passions are, none is more interesting than the passion to repress the yearning for love. Years earlier in college, David’s boyfriend, an idealistic young man, dies unexpectedly. Grief stricken, David enters the church as a refuge against temptation, not only the temptation to love another man but the temptation to live life fully. His years of “determined avoidance” come back to haunt him one night after a thoughtless evening of music and dance, wine and drugs. Alone in the rectory, he kisses a precocious 15-year old boy, as much for his physical beauty as for the striking example he provides of David’s own unlived potential. The kiss is neither criminal nor innocent. But appearances (and prejudices) are against him in a Scottish town filled with anti-English, -Catholic and -posh sentiment. David is this unholy trinity. Plus he’s gay. So he does what many sad, lonely literary types do: he wrestles with himself and struggles with his story to discover integrity and moral beauty. Be Near Me is a fascinating psychological study. But there is a compositional challenge that O’Hagan botches. It has to do with the intermingling of history and fictional autobiography. Hard-hearted banter moves along fine and well in the novel until O’Hagan feels compelled to signal the importance of this or that historical trend, be it globalism, environmentalism or militarism. Although these trends have a lot of cultural cache, they often have only an indirect bearing on David’s story. Distraction ensues. When it does, Be Near Me reads like a Billy Joel ballad stuffed with news headlines and hot-button social issues, from anti-Arab sentiment to pro-war fervor, from WMDs and Trident missiles to anthrax and hip-hop. My dear mum, who is a damn fine reader, wasn’t annoyed in the slightest by this cross-sectioning of history. But I certainly was. The best part of the novel centers on the idea of what it means to be a natural Catholic but not a natural person. That, and “the miracles of art to help one to live one’s life,” and to cling to the things that matter most. Forty years after Conor’s death, David says of him: “I hear his sacred heart and see his eyes closing as he falls asleep. And I say: be near me. The world is rowdy and nothing is certain. Do not stray. None of us was meant to face the day and night alone, though that is what we do and memory now is a place of fading togetherness. Be near me. True love is what God intends.”

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4 Responses to Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan

  1. kat says:

    I would like to read O’Hagan, but maybe this isn’t the one I should read. A Billy Joel ballad with headlines doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.

    I had this same problem with John Irving’s new book (which I didn’t finish). Dialogue was a fount of information about the history of gay bars, gay rights, suspicion of bisexuals, etc. He also spent at least 100 pages writing about his character’s love of books. Usually I don’t mind this kind of thing at all, but it was basically a list of Dickens, Bronte: love ’em all, but it didn’t need to be there.

    • I’m never really annoyed by great books but often very good ones, and this is a very good novel. I would recommend it to certain circles, including the one I’ve plopped you in. Plus I’d like to hear what you think of it. You might agree with my mom.

  2. Tony says:

    The only O’Hagan book I’ve read is ‘Our Fathers’, and I have to say that it didn’t make me want to try a second…

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