September Read of the Month: “The Holy Mark,” by Gregory Alexander

Gregory Alexander

Gregory Alexander

Reviewed by Jessi Lewis

The Holy Mark is the story of Joseph Broussard, or “Joe,” who later becomes Father Anthony Miggliore, a priest of the Catholic Church in New Orleans. Joe’s story involves distinct conflicts between Joe’s family and the Catholic community regarding sexual attraction, the Church’s public relations, and the hidden and overt lifestyle of one clergyman. The result is a plot rife with politics, taboo, and shame.

It was necessary and important for Alexander to begin The Holy Mark with Joe’s childhood and to explain Joe’s relation to his grandmother, who like Joe was obese and revered the Church. The book’s greatest strength is its presentation of the Miggliores, Joe’s mother’s Sicilian family whose greed, support, judgment and jealousy define Joe’s life and his station within Louisiana culture.

To know Joe, you must experience his boyhood among the Miggliores and understand his responses to the events around him: his increasing self-consciousness over the birthmark on his scalp, his grandmother’s innocent ignorance on her death bed, and his obsessive attraction to his cousin—the “Tony” he would later name himself after.

This first portion of the novel provides the reader with an emotional connection to Joe, even an understanding of his faults. He is the overweight boy who cannot swim. He is confused by sexuality, overwhelmed by cruelty and unable to define the wrongs that others commit. Later on, when Joe becomes a priest and fulfills his grandmother’s request, he is torn between an adult viewpoint of the world and a continuation of that childhood confusion and obsession. From there, the novel becomes a cascade of events through Joe’s life—his struggles with morals, passions and poisonous family.

As a story of pedophilia in The Church, the novel is told from Joe’s viewpoint, a beautiful and unnerving tactic in that the narrator explains the great lure of those young men who need his help. It is the fulcrum of Joe’s relationship with a high school boy in a Catholic school that sends his passions spiraling out of control and ultimately leads him to his fateful meeting with the priest of his childhood. Joe’s frustration with Catholic bureaucracy within the ranks is clear, but for the reader that frustration is overwhelming, since Joe continues in his own manner, never questioning his desires or logic, always managing to find his next object of attraction with little obstruction from his employer.

The writing here submerges readers into the main character’s senses. Sensual descriptions are colored by Joe’s perspectives and enhanced by Alexander’s eye for cinematic sentences. We see the golden tones of skin, the impact of one missing tooth on the aesthetics of a face, descriptions of earlobes and muscles, all of which define how Joe sees the world. Smells define Joe’s world; he recalls memories of childhood based on odors he recognizes as an adult—including the smell of roach droppings in his grandmother’s home. The author even takes readers close to Joe’s scalp, where the fateful birthmark that inspired his religious inclinations sits. The mark burns and itches with each additional alteration Joe uses to cover it and with each unhealthy thought he has about his cousin, Tony.

The most effective lines occur when Joe describes his family members—evidence of the author’s keen understanding of partnered grotesqueness and sentimentality: “She always sat in the same great rosewood chair… It was upholstered in floral like the wallpaper of a ballroom, similar to the huge, tent-like housedresses my grandmother always wore so that as she got bigger, she and that chair became to be in my mind one great sedentary idol.” With this description of his grandmother, it’s clear how attached to idols Joe truly is—a man surrounded by those with bigger personalities and greater standings.

Despite the overwhelming influence of first-person perspective through Joe’s narration, the writing never lets the reader forget where these events are taking place. Louisiana is clearly a minor but important character here, from her foods influencing Joe’s weight to the unique combination of Joe’s background as Italian and Cajun. The street dwellers on the rough side of the city help in Joe’s one great passionate dream. The reader cannot question Alexander’s ability to transplant us so significantly in another time, place and person’s head.

The wearisome but indispensable element of the plotline is Joe’s consistent return to his sexual passions, which he can never shake. Therein lies a purpose behind the work. There is no stopping Joe’s passions, just as there is no stopping The Church from avoiding public responsibility. The two are woven together in a narration of struggle, moral failings and consistent, stubborn return. This frustration is heartbreaking and honest, as necessary to Joe’s story as are his childhood and his early moments of misunderstanding.

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