Tom McHale Essay - Critical Essays

McHale, Tom (Vol. 3)

McHale, Tom 1942(?)–

McHale is an American novelist who managed a blend of the Absurd and the Catholic in his two novels, Principato and Farragan's Retreat.

Perhaps Tom McHale is an ex-priest or ex-seminarian. Perhaps he was formerly married to or in love with an Italian girl. Maybe, in terms of the very interesting, funny, morbid and "ethnic" novel [Principato] about Philadelphia morticians, Italians, bog-Irish, priests, blacks and nuns that he has written, this is merely two ways of saying the same thing. "Ethnic" must go in quotes because just recently a society to defend hyphenated Americans (the phrase is Woodrow Wilson's), especially Polish- and Italo-, against racist slurs was founded and held its first conference. The lady in charge calls us all "ethnics."…

WASP novelists pretend to think that the important issues of American life are class and money; but we know—that is us ethnics know—that the important issues of American life are ethnicity and religion. Also money. I predict that "Principato" will become the sacred scripture and cult book of that long-obscured, long-overdue hyphenated revelation….

Tom McHale's imagination is richly allegorical. Following Dante, Joyce and the later James he always manages to think of two or more things at once, so that his principal, principled Italian, Principato, is almost-Everyman; his Philadelphia is a city much like hell, without ceasing to be Police Commissioner Rizzo's, Mayor Tate's, Senator Hugh Scott's and a blackly comic pun on brotherly love to boot; and his lovely Lucy, who emerges from a secluded order of nuns after 13 years with the joyful cry "I'm sprung," is both a Sister and a sister….

McHale is not above sentimentality and contrivance in certain sexual tasks assigned to Principato, but his beautiful treatment of the New Jersey pinelands more than compensates for this slight flaw. In a book that tells us so much and so memorably about Philadelphia I rather miss McHale's not getting into the perplexed question of the original Bookbinder's Restaurant, but one can't have everything.

My wife read this wonderful novel over my shoulder. Her comment about McHale's essential religious attitude was: "I think he's serving a life sentence." Well, why not? We ethnics could use that. I mean a really good American Catholic novelist. And funny! Then we retold each other that fine old Philadelphia story. William Penn sold the city to the devil. The devil was to take delivery at City Hall, at the bottom of Broad Street, but fell asleep on his way in from the city line. A shrewd Quaker like Penn will wait forever to close a business deal but not the rest of us. As far as I am concerned McHale now owns Philadelphia.

Julian Moynahan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 9, 1970, pp. 7, 35.

Last year, my anticipation whetted by the advance book-trade reviews, I read [McHale's] first novel, "Principato,"… to find it so barbarously written that I could barely finish it—barbarous not only in fine detail but often in construction and characterization. I could see the shadow of a talent behind the screen of errors, and I knew that Julian Moynahan had called Mr. McHale "a really good American Catholic novelist," so I felt that I must wait for his second novel before coming to an opinion, in the hope that editing and rewriting would avoid the errors of the first….

As in McHale's first novel, too many characters [in "Farragan's Retreat"] are simply grossly swollen stereotypes without dimension. Too often their actions move in farcical fits and starts without any relation to their presumed motivations; too often they leap from languid passivity to obscenity-mouthing rage; too often their potential ambivalence, their roundedness, is flattened to fit the Procrustean plot.

If I agreed with Phoebe Adams, the astute reviewer for the Atlantic, who says of "Farragan's Retreat" that "the author has not a single original idea about any of these topics," including "the Irish mother" and "the Roman Catholic Church," there would be no need to belabor the book at this length. But I do feel that Tom McHale has at least one valid and original idea—the idea of mocking the rigidity of our society by mocking the Church and its lay and clerical zealots—and that his young, exuberant destructiveness deserves the offices of a tough and patient editor. McHale is using dynamite—or tactical nuclear weapons—to deflate balloons that would explode at a pinprick, and his work cries out for the less noisy but more powerful (and funnier) subtlety of a J. F. Powers, who is still, I think, our only "really good American Catholic novelist." But what I'm really annoyed about is that McHale will probably climb right up the best-seller lists without the curb of hard editing that just might turn him into a serious, so to speak, comic novelist, not just a money-maker for his publishers. As we gain a product, we may lose a talent.

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker, April 17, 1971, p. 145.