God Save This Book

by is god. This is often said of Google, a mere tool. But the big-river bookstore, in its capitalistic omnipotence, actively shapes the world. Particularly the world of writers.

So when my friend Tony Hendra’s book Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul was released to near-universal praise May 18, I didn’t watch the numbers from Book Sense and BookScan, the all-seeing archangels of the bookselling world. I watched Amazon.

The book was set to spend its life “midlist,” meaning the publisher considered it too esoteric (in this case, too Catholic), and more importantly its author wasn’t famous enough to make it a bestseller. Random House printed between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, depending on who you ask. That seemed light to me, since I’d read the manuscript and knew the book resonated with even devout atheists like me. They also hadn’t factored in Hendra’s otherworldly ability to borrow other people’s fame.

At 5 a.m. May 20, I sent Tony a telegram-style congratulatory e-mail trumpeting the book’s Amazon sales rank: 51. “Not bad! Go, Joe!” Two hours later, Don Imus, whose seal of approval can’t be bought, threatened his radio audience, “If you don’t buy this book, I’ll beat the hell out of you!” My next congrats was for hitting No. 4 by noon, and by midnight I was popping virtual champagne corks because Father Joe was No. 1 on Amazon.

Random House printed another 90,000 copies.

For the next few weeks, Amazon’s customer reviews gushed. Five stars across the board, except the decorous four-star from an obviously planted associate of Tony’s.

The New York Times Book Review‘s first redesigned edition under its new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sicced conservative Catholic pundit Andrew Sullivan on the leftist Hendra’s book, presumably to watch the sparks fly. But Sullivan’s blindingly glowing review literally begged people to read Father Joe. The book disappeared from store shelves everywhere, so fast that the New York Post wrote that it was impossible to find a copy anywhere in Manhattan.

The print run soared to 300,000.

The Amazon customer reviews sang, laughed, and sobbed. Readers of every stripe loved this book. A minor flame war broke out when someone who plainly hadn’t read the book lobbed a one-star review (the lowest possible) that claimed Father Joe was right-wing propaganda akin to the “Left Behind” books, and a couple of five-star reviews muscled in to beat down the anonymous nonreader.

It surprised me to see customer reviews for a nonpolitical book appear so partisan. In fact, just as Sullivan had spent a few sentences of his review disdaining Hendra’s politics, some Amazon reviewers started focusing on the book’s few jogs into ’80s-era Reagan- and Thatcher-bashing. But these were aberrations in the steady stream of positive notices.

After the Father’s Day rush, the book settled into a respectable Top 50 place on Amazon’s bestseller list. It was destined to be a steady-selling classic, and for the best reason: intrinsic quality, not hype.

Nosing around the New York Times website June 30, I caught a preview of the shitstorm set to be unleashed the next day, in a piece by N.R. Kleinfield. Tony’s 39-year-old daughter Jessica had written to the Times weeks before, alleging he had molested her when she was a child, a charge Tony categorically denied when ambushed by the Times the day before publication of Kleinfield’s article. (On July 11, Times public editor Daniel Okrent wrote that the “rather late in the process” interview wasn’t an ambush, which he defined as calling the accused “an hour before deadline.”)

Newspapers around the country splashed cutesy mini-stories about the issue in their entertainment sections, along with Britney Spears denying that she was pregnant. The New York Post christened Tony “Molest Scandal Scribe” for a headline, his demi-fame obviously not affording him the name recognition of Jacko or Martha. Curiosity and attention pushed Father Joe up into the 20s in Amazon’s sales rankings. And the Father Joe reviewers on Amazon went insane.

A flood of anonymous one-star reviews appeared, some offering sympathy to the daughter, many with vicious and unsubstantiated accusations against the father. At least one professional enemy of Tony weighed in anonymously, saying this scandal vindicated him for hating Tony all these years.

Amazon has now purged most of these slurs, but for a week or so that was all people saw when they shopped for this book, driving the sales down immeasurably. There is no equivalent in the brick-and-mortar world. People can’t spray-paint “accused child molester” across the hardbacks in all the Barnes & Noble stores.

Because I’m a friend of Tony and I’ve been a vocal advocate for this book—I interviewed him for The Village Voice before the scandal broke (the piece never ran because of it) and have reviewed the book elsewhere—people keep asking my opinion on the allegations. I have no special insight into the matter, though. I know only one of the players, and although I shudder to imagine the charges are true, I have to admit that, this long after the alleged events, they’re as plausible as Tony’s denials. Judging exclusively from the Times articles and the “Molest Scandal Scribe Hits Back” piece from the Post, the daughter appears to believe she was abused, and the father appears to believe she wasn’t. As far as I know, there is no legal action in the works, and they seem to have co-existed on polite terms, like any other dysfunctional, post-divorce family, for the past couple of decades.

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.”

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.