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Office of Innocence by Thomas Keneally


Rating: (Recommended)


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By the time you finish reading Office of Innocence, the new novel by Thomas Keneally, you’ll be nodding your head with deeper understanding of human nature. Through the exposition of well defined characters, Keneally takes us through the surface levels of innocence and naivete, into the deeper levels of behavior that lead toward insight into others. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 212-15), of a scene between young Father Darragh and Trumble, the lover of a parishioner, Rose:

Darragh did not know where the impulse to confide in this hostile, half-tipsy Marxist came from. Darragh was God's storm trooper only in Trumble's mind. In the monsignor's, in the vicar-general's, he was an ee-jit and a fable.

"I'm just another man, Ross. Just another confused, battling yokel."

"Oh yeah. You really loved it when I said that to you last time. Well, let me repeat, Sonny Jim. To me you are just another bloke. And there! You are!" And to emphasize the there he punched Darragh full force on the shoulder. But then he seemed to despair of blows. "There's nothing I can do to you to make up for your bloody creeping influence on Rosie."

"In the case of Mrs. Flood," Darragh told him, willing now to stoke the man's confusion of soul, his shoulder smarting, "it wasn't me at work. It was something more than me."

He was perversely delighted to see Trumble's certain fury return. When you strike again, he thought, I'll damn well strike you!

"Oh, save me from that I-am-but-an-instrument shit," Trumble declared, showing in his maddened eyes how well Darragh's line had worked. "That makes me really fucking angry. I could beat the fucking certainty out of you."

Darragh said, "I think you might be more certain than me. We both try to live by great certainty, don't we?"

"Don't bloody say that," shouted Trumble. "That's utter bullshit! My certainties have a scientific, social, and economic basis. Yours are fucking fairy tales."

"Maybe that's why I'm having a few problems with them," Darragh admitted, ringing the changes now between divine messenger and ordinary fellow. Although, he noticed, even in the midst of all this yelling, it was easier to be frank with an enemy than with the guardians of the Faith.

Trumble asked, "If you've got any doubts, why did you need to come hunting down Rosie and Kate?"

Darragh, the darkness of his rage a potent comfort, was enjoying himself. He had Trumble's head spinning, he could see. Darragh's mother had spoken in awe of his gentle father's Gaelic temper emerging in his youth, the power of his rage, his determination that the insulter should not walk away before blows were thrown and blood drawn. That madness was in him now, but he retained throughout his cunning in debate.

"Look, Ross," he said, "I believe in the flawed nature of humanity. I believe Stalin is as lustful for power as any man. I believe the Pope is subject to sin. You believe people are born perfect, and it's ownership that destroys them, that having it or not having it is all that makes them bad. You're more innocent than I am. You're touchingly innocent. You'd make a damn good student for the priesthood."

"I can't bloody believe this," said Trumble, casting his eyes to the mute-dark sky, and at a loss to take the discussion further, he threw a considerable punch at Darragh. It landed on the side of his neck, an improbable level of force and intent in it. Darragh, very satisfied, could not stop himself bending over, gagging, and thus inviting Trumble into his defenses. It was easy for Trumble now to strike him again on the upper cheek, showing great accuracy for a man who had been drinking. It was as Darragh had read in the novels—the heavens lit up with whirling stars,  and a bilious incredible day supplanted night. But he had his balance, at least, and grabbed the solidity of Trumble, driving him back in an imperfect but potent rugby tackle, the kind which the brothers of his boyhood would have considered a poor substitute to real sportsmanship. A short, half-smothered punch against his ear brought further foul comets into Darragh's vision. He began to pummel Trumble's kidney area, and stood up and reeled off one good blow against Trumble's left cheek. Even so concussed, he knew that this was not the Christian martyrs' way, to try to oppose one's own lions to the lions of the tyrant. The true way was to open one's breast to the claws, but Darragh could not manage it. He threw another truncated and worthy punch into the soft and—as he thought of it—beery flesh near Trumble's spine, where a rare area of flabbiness absorbed it and robbed it of some meaning. Then he pulled himself away and brought a short, satisfactory blow on Trumble's ear. But the man's forehead, fair, steely, and dense, descended on Darragh's temple and proclaimed another brief, vicious, sickly day.

At that moment of pain, his anger departed. It occurred to him to ask what he was doing, brawling in a street, after hotel-closing, outside a dead woman's house. It means I must now take what he gives, Dariagh concluded. Dull and vivid blows one after another. I am at last submissive, he declared to himself, with the faintest glow of pleasure and a large fear of coming impacts.

 But some ministers of mercy were all at once there, holding him firmly the shoulder, dragging Trumble off, and crying, "Hang on! Whoa there! What the bloody hell!" Once he knew he was safe from further blows, he could tell at once these two men were plainclothes policemen. They wore the suit, differentiated only by minutiae of pattern, which Inspector Kearney wore. They wore the same hat from Anthony Hordern's. Darragh saw the younger of the two men give Trumble a very effective crack across the back of the head, involving not just the fist but the forearm as well, and delivered with the laziness of long practice. "What the fuck are you doing, Trumble? Beating up priests now? You ought to be fucking interned, you prick. Sorry, Father. Pardon my French."

"They were all saying that these days, all the profaners mild and heroic, even poor old Bert Flood. In this case, Darragh lacked the breath to forgive the policeman’s French.

The older policeman told Trumble he was on a warning, he was watched, he was to go home. He ought to keep a bag packed too, because bastards like him could be interned any second. Just as well old Joe Stalin was on our side now, the younger suited cop remarked. Only thing that saved Trumble's rotten bloody bacon. "Unless you want to prefer charges, do you. Father?"

Darragh found the breath twice to say no. The older copper said he thought that was wise in these circumstances.

"What circumstances?" Trumble challenged.

"Well," said the younger policeman, nodding towards Kate Heggarty's house.

"I didn't see him come out of there," said Trumble, showing his solidarity with Darragh against the police.

"Don't argue with the bastard. Cliff. Haul off to buggery, Trumble."

Trumble gathered his limbs, disordered by conflict, and began to slouch homeward up the Crescent. Still living with Bert Flood, it seemed. Brothers in lost love, of one kind or another.

Darragh, breathing, sore in the head but subject to no more false flashes of light, concluded the detectives wanted to get rid of Trumble because he did not hold any real interest for them. With him, their manner had been that of schoolteachers who subjected a bad student casually and daily to their contempt. But they found him, Darragh, more interesting, he surmised. "Do you have a car here, Father?" asked the older policeman.

"I was just out for a walk," said Darragh. It was so obvious—he knew from all the Saturday-afternoon matinees that the murderer always returned. He could see in the older policeman's eye that this must be a valid principle, since there was a meaningfulness, and he turned to swap that meaningfulness with the younger policeman. Both of them were older than he, and wise according to their way.

Keneally’s fine writing in Office of Innocence provides enough reason to read this book. The fact that you’ll be thinking about innocence for weeks following your turn of the last page is even more reason to give this novel a try.

Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: of Innocence.htm


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