A few years ago - well, almost seven, to be exact - I wrote about one of the novels that made a seminal impact on the youthful Hadley - Walter F. Murphy's The Vicar of Christ. It's a book that holds up surprisingly well today, as does this review. Considering the novel's protagonist - a man who is elected pope and takes the name Francis I - I though it might also still be of interest.
I've linked a couple of times in past weeks to James Bowman's site, where he's been discussing a series of movies he's presented, entitled "The American Movie Hero." Bowman presents three architypes of movie heroes: the virtuous hero (Gary Cooper, John Wayne), the "cool" hero (Humphrey Bogart, Steve McQueen), and the cartoon hero (Harrison Ford, in Raiders of the Lost Ark).
It's difficult to craft a good story without a hero of some type, even if's only an anti-hero. Show me a flawed story, whether movie, show or book, and I'd suggest one of the major problems is the lack of a hero. Bowman doesn't presume to discuss all types of heroes, and therefore I'd suggest the existence of another: the doomed hero.
The doomed hero encompasses elements of all three types listed above. He probably comes closest to the virtuous hero, the one who fights for an ideal; who, as Bowman says, sees "the work that needs to be done," and this is perhaps the defining characteristic of the doomed hero. However, the doomed hero can also share elements of the cool hero in the sense of fatalism and world-weariness that accompanies his mission, which can include a moral ambiguity about his work. It's more difficult to see the similarities with the comic, or larger than life, hero, although the doomed hero often appears in works of an epic, larger than life, scale.
Most of all, when watching or reading about the doomed hero, there is the sense on the part of the witness that "this isn't going to turn out well." Think of Maximus, the character portrayed by Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Not only is there a sense of foreboding about Maximus throughout the film, that although he's certain to triumph he's also going to pay a heavy price, there's also the feeling that this is as it should be, that there really isn't any other way it could happen. The doomed hero meets this with a sense of resignation - the resignation that you see in Steve McQueen's face in The Towering Inferno, as his character, Fire Chief O'Hallorhan, heads back into the burning building in a last effort to save the lives of those trapped inside. The expression on McQueen's face (through which McQueen usually did his best acting) tells you that he doesn't expect to come out of this building alive, and it's perhaps more a testimonial to McQueen's star power than anything else that he somewhat surprisingly survives his mission, rescuing those inside to boot.
This has been perhaps a somewhat roundabout introduction to Declan Walsh, the doomed hero of Walter Murphy's 1978 novel The Vicar of Christ, a book that probably should be better known than it is. We know he's doomed before the story even starts, really: in a brief introduction, the unnamed narrator explains that he's on a mission to write the biography of the martyred Walsh, who died as Pope Francesco I. So, having been told in the opening pages that our hero dies, we are immediately plunged backward into the remarkable story of Walsh's life: a Korean War hero and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Chief Justice of the United States and, finally, Vicar of Christ.
If all this sounds a little like just a too much for one lifetime (not to mention straining the credulity of the reader; even a favorable reviewer called it "preposterous"), there's good reason. I'd read the book myself one summer during my college years, afterward discussing it with a professor who enjoyed discussing that type of thing, and making this very point. Of course, he shrugged in response - after all, the story wasn't really about realism. It was about the epic, mythological hero. Were the adventures of Ulysses, Beowulf and Arthur any more realistic? It was big book for the reader to get lost in (over 600 pages), a bigger-than-life story that reminded one that life itself, in fact, is bigger than life.
The Vicar of Christ tells this epic story through the eyes of four people who knew Walsh well – a fellow soldier in Korea, a Supreme Court associate justice, the Cardinal who spearheads Walsh’s election as Pope (the book’s longest section), and, as a type of coda, the journalist who provides the inside story of (the now) Francesco’s final days. In doing so, Murphy tells us as much about the narrators, who appear and reappear through Walsh’s life, as he does about Walsh. Their distinctive voices, their (at times) compelling stories, their frequently contradictory opinions of characters they each come in contact with, and their insights into the enigmatic Walsh/Francesco all serve to weave the disparate threads of the story together. We know Walsh as they did, but in the end it’s unlikely that we know him any better then they did, for Murphy as author only lets us see Walsh through their eyes, giving us as much knowledge as he does them.
Murphy, given the chance to provide us with easy answers about Walsh, declines the opportunity and leaves the task to us. Occasionally one of the narrators will provide us with insight that another narrator lacks, but ultimately we’re left to guess about Walsh as much as they do. And while it’s clear that we’re meant to admire Walsh, it’s not at all clear that we’re supposed to understand him.
Murphy is never blind to Walsh’s faults. In an effective use of the narrative form, Walsh’s actions – good and bad – are always given to us as seen through the eyes of others, denying Walsh the opportunity (common to so many fictional characters) to provide a self-serving explanation. (When we do hear those explanations, they’re filtered through the translations of the narrators, further separating Walsh from the reader.)
As to those faults, they are a mixture of the objective (adultery, arrogance, crudity) and the subjective (a liberal Catholicism that will not rest easily with many more orthodox Catholics, though ultimately it does not get in the way of the story). But if great men have great faults, they frequently also have great virtues as well. A towering intellect, a driving ambition, an inner confidence that helps to hide an uncertainty self-knowledge, and an uncertain growth that (depending on your own reading of Walsh) either leads him far away from his old self, or brings him to the fulfillment of his destiny – these are the traits that Murphy uses to confirm his verdict of Declan Walsh/Pope Francesco I as a great, if flawed, man.
It’s always been a wonder to me that The Vicar of Christ, which was published in the heyday of the television miniseries, was not made into one. Its truly epic scale that covers all of the American passions – politics, religion, war, justice, lust – made the story a natural, and I’d thought that at one time I’d read of the story being optioned; alas, however, nothing apparently ever came of it.
So what, ultimately, do we make of Walter Murphy’s The Vicar of Christ? Doubtless it represents many things to many different readers – a hoary relic, the last gasp of a fading liberal Catholicism; a reminder, through the mists of time, of the legendary hero-warrior; a story, uniquely American, of ambition and accomplishment; or perhaps a universal story, that of triumph and tragedy, loss and redemption. At the very least it presents us with a doomed hero that would have done Wagner proud, a man sacrificed on the pyre of his own beliefs. Was he martyred for the faith, or stopped from destroying it? Or could it perhaps be both? That is one of the many mysteries the reader encounters, mysteries likely to be mulled over in the mind for some time to come. Not everyone will like it, or agree with it. Some may be bored with it. Fewer, in all likelihood, will quickly forget it.
One thing is for certain, however. As the college professor told me those many years ago, it is a modern demonstration of the power of myth, the need for heroes, the drama of life. And life itself requires some suspension of ordinary, mortal belief, doesn’t it? For even the most ordinary of lives is so full of miracles that, were we to write about it in simple truth, nobody would believe it.