No Jerusalem builded for this shabby lot
THE radical thing about Richard T. Kelly’s ambitious and much- heralded fictional debut is how thoroughly old- fashioned it turns out to be. For a writer who cut his teeth on biographies of contemporary film stars and avant- garde directors, there is no celluloid evanescence here.
Instead, we’re offered solid stuff: a voice of high solemnity and a monumental narrative construction of 500- plus pages. Even Faber’s chosen font seems substantial as stone.
Then there is the matter of content. Crusaders describes an England where workers wage earnest and bitter struggle against the owners of capital, at a moment when the eternal obligations of the Anglican Church fail to mesh with earthly political aims: a society, in short, where individual Christian conscience can easily come into conflict with society’s larger forces.
All this, set against the dour backdrop of the nation’s poverty- stricken industrial north.
Is it, the reader asks, an exercise in postmodern irony? A pastiche of some 19th- century novel? If Crusaders ’ subject matter and setting recall Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell as often as more modern fare, then the real shock lies in the novel’s time frame: 1978 to 1996, from Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to the dawn of Tony Blair’s Britain.
While the novel’s internal chronology operates as a series of intricate, retrospective spirals, the reader is given enough information at the outset to flesh out some basics. It’s 1996 and the dying days of John Major’s Tory government, when John Gore, a young priest and born northerner ( like Blair, he’s given a Durham childhood), leaves his relatively cosy Dorset parish to come to Hoxheath, a fictional area of Newcastle upon Tyne. There he has been given the difficult task of planting, that is, starting from scratch, a new church. Difficult, because Hoxheath is urban purgatory, a ghetto for the discarded elderly of the old working class and the rancid youth of the new: the sort of place where graffiti is considered an enlivening improvement.
And difficult, also, because despite Gore’s background he’s an outsider, too southernsounding, too highbrow, too much of a stiff for his earthy and plainspoken potential congregants. Gore is a man in earnest about his vocation, however: he may go about things the wrong way, but he does so with surprising determination. As he attempts to establish his modest church in the local school hall, trouble arrives in the form of local small businessman, Stevie Coulson. ( Coulson is a former bouncer turned standover man for a Newcastle crime boss.) Physically vast, damaged by steroid abuse, capable of great violence but with a growing aversion to it, he cuts a magnificent and magnificently complex figure.
Gore, who sees ( or only wants to see) him as a colourful Hoxheath identity desirous of helping the church, is fascinated and, despite the warnings of his small band of local community volunteers, accepts Coulson’s goodwill. Readers are ahead of Gore in knowing that such assistance will come with strings attached.
But it is Lindy, another parishioner and a former girlfriend of Coulson — and mother of one of his children, no less — who poses the gravest threat to Gore’s efforts.
The hitherto priggish and largely sexless priest