Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
Random House, 2004. 304 pages.
Summary: “Father Joe” is a memoir written by satirist Tony Hendra. It recounts his real-life friendship with an English monk whom he met when he was a fourteen-year-old caught up in an inappropriate relationship with a married woman in the 1950s. Throughout his life, Tony continued this spiritual friendship through two marriages, five children, the ups and downs of his career, and his back-and-forth between England and the United States. Throughout the book, he recounts the personal details of his life and the particular conversations with Father Joe that impacted him. The book ends with Father Joe’s death in 1998.
Strengths: This New York Times best seller demonstrates very clearly one person’s journey of faith. Over the fifty or so years the book covers, Tony experiences just about everything on the spectrum from fundamentalism to atheism to agnosticism to fanaticism. It also shows the life of a monk, dispelling many of the myths that exist even among Catholics. These men are cast in a very positive light, showing their vocation as a gift for themselves and others. Finally, Tony is Oxford-educated and a fantastic writer. His style may not appeal to all but the book is well-written and shows a great amount of respect and knowledge of Catholicism and its intricate details.
Drawbacks: Tony is a satirist by profession and he trades on brutal honesty. That makes the book R-rated in many cases. He describes situations and stories with what appear to be much of its original language. For those sensitive to vulgar language, this book may not be for you. While I found that the “dirty details” added honesty and realism to the book and its characters, others may find it offensive and distracting. Tony also spends a great deal of time describing the projects he was working on in his career. Non-Americans, non-Brits, and younger people unfamiliar with such institutions as the “National Lampoon” and “Beyond the Fringe” may find the middle third of the book uninteresting. There are two other criticisms. The first is that for a whole chunk of the book, we hear little about Father Joe and more about Tony’s career. This is because he spent a great deal of time away from his beloved friend and he needs to fill in the details of how he found his way back to him. The other issue is the missing pieces that aren’t covered. Some people in Tony’s life appear and disappear in the book without explanation. You’re also left wondering where Tony’s faith is after all is said and done.
Bottom line: I read this book with my senior classes. It is very valuable. But you must have parents on board because of the mature themes and coarse language. After we read the book, I also let the students know that one of Tony’s daughters has since accused him of sexual abuse. In the last analysis, the book is very uplifting for adults and young adults. You find yourself wishing you had a Father Joe in your own life.