The extent of Edwin O'Connor's achievement in The Edge of Sadness has been concealed, ironically, by his own subtlety in craftsmanship. Although the novel was recognized by some as a major achievement in the realistic portrayal of a priest, there were just as many readers who found it merely an entertaining "re-hash" of the Irish-Catholic world of The Last Hurrah: Frank Skeffington had metamorphosed into Charlie Carmody and that was that. (p. 3)
[For] the reader (who has learned not to believe everything that the first-person narrator tells about himself) focusing on Father Hugh Kennedy as the protagonist, a subtle and highly dramatic conflict emerges as the priest reaches a crisis in his life.
It is extremely important to establish who the protagonist is in this novel. For if one [selects] Charlie as the main character, as some critics have, the book can be seen as [escapist literature]…. (p. 4)
But the book is Father Hugh Kennedy's story, whether he, as narrator, denies it or not. It is the story of the regeneration of a priest, a story of sanctity in the modern world, of a man coming to terms with himself and with God.
Part of O'Connor's widespread appeal is his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the New England Irish-Catholic environment through a mass of details, anecdotes, and informed commentary, which some critics have labeled sheer nostalgia…. It is true that O'Connor is a perceptive observer of the changing status of the Irish immigrant children, but he is more than a local colorist; the apparently rambling side-comments not only contribute to the versimilitude of the story, but also serve in The Edge of Sadness as necessary functional devices. If a writer is to describe accurately the world of Charlie Carmody and his octogenarian friends, he must concern himself with Johnny Corrigan's stroke, Rose Gormley's death, Albert's gallstones, and Sebastiano's blood poisoning because, in fact, the obituary page is the most popular reading for the aged, and medical case histories are the choice topics of conversation.
The Last Hurrah, for instance, is filled with memories of quaint and picturesque "characters" of the immigrant generation; however, The Edge of Sadness has very few nonfunctional anecdotes. The unity and coherence in the novel are frequently unrecognized by critics who may be distracted by the seemingly rambling episodes. The "death" scene of Mrs. Sanchez, for instance, early in the novel, allows O'Connor to establish some necessary material foreshadowing Charlie Carmody's "deathbed confession" later; random conversations in the early pages frequently become meaningful as the story progresses, thus indicating the structural design and control of the author.
O'Connor's basic technique is the use of a dialogue between the narrator and one other character. Even in crowded scenes, such as the dinner party or the wake, there are seldom any conversations in which more than two people are talking. O'Connor focuses sharply on one character for several pages, then, using the narrator's analysis as a transition, shifts to another character. In spite of the crowded stage, the reader never gets lost because of this device.
Structurally the novel is centered upon a few scenes rendered in depth. The dinner party, the rectory, the flashback to the Cenacle rest home, and the wake constitute the bulk of the novel. The forward motion is sustained by two suspense devices introduced early in the novel as O'Connor plants subtle foreshadowings concerning Father Hugh Kennedy's "problem" and Charlie Carmody's motive for friendship. By the end of the first section …, the priest's alcoholism has been revealed, establishing another suspense here as to whether or not he will be a backslider. The question of Charlie's motives for seeking Hugh's friendship is resolved in the "deathbed" scene…. [With] this suspense removed, the center of attention shifts to Father Kennedy's priestly life and the novel reaches its climax in the bitter invectives of Father John Carmody's denunciation of Father Kennedy's lethargy and egocentricity.
Realism takes time and space, sharp attention to detail and a relatively slow pace in order to be convincing. Characterization is a subtle thing and the failure of most "realistic" novels is a preoccupation of the author with action or idea. If we demand that a novelist present a realistic treatment of a character, then we must recognize the achievement of O'Connor in capturing the essence of Father Kennedy's situation and in exhibiting it in its seemingly rambling appearance which disguises the structure underneath.
O'Connor deals also with ideas. Among other things in this novel, he is concerned with the present status of the Catholic Church in America…. Satire, expressed through the narrator's analysis or through the dialogue of other characters, appear frequently; but although O'Connor and [J. F. Powers] often share the same targets for their barbs, O'Connor lacks the...
(The entire section is 2086 words.)