God Save This Book

I write this not to praise Tony Hendra, but to defend a provably innocent victim

I write this not to defend Tony Hendra nor to praise him. I write this hoping to defend a provably innocent victim: the book.

The impetus for Jessica Hendra's revelation to the Times was that the sins at the center of her accusations weren't included in Father Joe. Indeed, the epic headline of that 2,500-word story is "Daughter Says Father's Confessional Book Didn't Confess His Molestation of Her." Without getting too academic—I'd argue, for example, that it's inaccurate to describe Father Joe as a "confessional book"—I have to say Tony's family-related confessions are comprehensive:

"No father could have been more selfish—treating his family like props, possessions, inconveniences, mostly forgetting them completely in his precious mission to save the world through laughter."

How many stars for Tony Hendra?
photo: Jeffrey Schifman
How many stars for Tony Hendra?

On Jessica and her older sister: "A sweet little girl was on the way—and then another—whom for most of their childhoods I largely ignored and certainly resented because I had to be a father, which prevented me from fucking as many hippie chicks as everyone else appeared to be. . . . I who had been given the keys to the kingdom, had held the pearl of great price, had dropped them in the mud, ground them in with my heel, and headed downtown to score."

But at least as importantly, Father Joe is about Father Joe—Dom Joseph Warrilow—not Tony Hendra. (Believe me, Andrew Sullivan would never beg you to read a book about Tony Hendra.) Rather it's a love letter from a sinner to a saint, from an intellectual to an intellect, from a tragically flawed soul to, perhaps, God. The magic of the book is not in any Behind the Music account of Spinal Tap, Spitting Image, or National Lampoon. It's in the breathtaking wisdom, love, humor, and humanity of a little man with big ears and flat feet.

Despite the monk's clasped hands on the cover and the soul-saving subtitle, this is neither a Catholic book nor a necessarily religious book. (Don't try to tell that to Borders, which shelves it under "Catholic Motivation.") That is to say its appeal isn't bound by religion or lack thereof. That was true of the man as well, who was counted as a spiritual adviser to the obviously not Catholic archbishop of Canterbury and the wandering Anglican Princess Diana. He never abandoned or judged Tony when he left the church. Father Joe paradoxically told the then atheist author, "God loves atheists as much as he does believers. P-p-probably more." His selflessness, insight, and particularly his boundless joy remind me more of the Dalai Lama than anyone else, an impression echoed by a Buddhist friend who read the book.

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul is more about ethics, values, the almost impossible art of listening, and the philosophy of self than any particular angle on God(s). It's also an utterly enjoyable, funny, and poignant read, in ways that far transcend books usually described with these adjectives. It's probably not, in the end, about saving Tony's soul, the subtitle being an invention of the publisher. But whether you believe its author is a righteous man or not—I don't and I don't imagine he does—you won't leave this book unimpressed.

When you finish it, whether you think I'm right or wrong, confess to Amazon.

Davis Sweet is the co-author of a forthcoming comic novel, tentatively titled Hostile Makeover. He co-edits The Bean Magazine (beanmag.com) with Tony Hendra.

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