You have to love something to satirize it well and we are lucky that Randy Boyagoda loves a lot of things: family life, the Catholic Church, multi-cultural Toronto, university teaching and… pickle ball.
In his new novel, Original Prin, Boyagoda pokes skewers into all these subjects and roasts them over a gentle comic flame. The story, which Salman Rushdie commends as “richly funny”, is by turns a giddy campus novel, a sweetly humorous meditation on modern family life, and a shrewd portrayal of religious faith, doubt and fanaticism.
The novel also celebrates seahorse-shaped penises in CanLit and has a whole chapter set on a pickle ball court. The topsy turvy world of Prin, a loveable English professor at a struggling Catholic university college, who gets drawn away from the comfortable mayhem of his Toronto family into a dangerous fund-raising scheme in the middle east, has a special resonance at a time when truth so often rings stranger than most fiction.
I could almost hear the great Catholic satirist, Evelyn Waugh chuckling from the opening sentence: “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.” Boyagoda has fun with his cast of characters who include: Molly, the motherly fountain of snacks and goodness to four precociously voluble girls; Wende, the sexy, sort-of-Jewish ex-girl-friend and public relations guru; Lizzie, Prin’s wildly exuberant first-generation immigrant mother who is loudly inquisitive about her son’s prostate troubles and whose second husband is a Muslim-raised grocer who runs a store called Kareem of the Crop. Lizzie’s ex-husband is pickle-ball obsessed Kingsley who excoriates his son with “You’re going to let yourself be beaten by Anglicans? Anglicans!”
On the way to a bloody cliff-hanger ending (the novel is the first in a trilogy), university committees, fund raising, temptation to adultery, children’s elliptical conversation, crises of faith, doubt, Can-Lit (including a novel about corruption-fighting vampires who are also Indigenous youth-leaders) are all joyfully skewered.
Boyagoda gets away with it because his writing is irrepressible – and because he gives the reader the indelible sense that his themes matter.
There is a playful pushing of boundaries that reminded me of what the great (Anglican convert!) poet John Donne identified as satire’s ability to create self-deprecating comedy that acknowledges our own complicit guilt and sin.
“We make Satyrs…when God knowes that it is in a great part, self-guiltinesse, and we doe but reprehend those things, which we our selves have done…”.
Boyagoda dances back and forth in the space between the modern world and the Catholic Christian tradition he has known since childhood. He joyously invents an ancient pilgrimage which survives in his fabricated Muslim majority Dragomans; a church built around a literal Holy Seat – the marks left by the young man who fled from the Lord’s side in Mark’s Gospel and “by pious tradition” ran naked out of the garden of Gethsemane, across Egypt to the Dragomans where exhausted he sat on a rock ledge which, softened by his own tears, receives his buttock imprint (his seat) to become evermore, a sacred relic.
In my favourite chapter, Prin has a crisis of conscience about playing in a pickle ball tournament with his father, who “can’t tell the difference between Catholic and catnip” – on a Good Friday. The pounding whiffle balls sound to the weak from fasting Prin like nails being hammered into Christ’s hands – He asks, how could he make this Friday good again?
It’s a question which resonates all through the novel, which like the very best satires, means far more than it first appears.