Set in New England in the 1980s, Cabrera’s debut novel excavates the lives of an older and a younger Catholic priest, both of whom are struggling to reconcile their gayness with their faith and institutional indoctrination. Their stories are steeped in scriptural contemplation, organizational contradictions, and the tension between the Church’s hardline orthodoxy and the changing modern world. Based on the eruption of child abuse scandals in the Church over the past two decades and the subsequent public conversation about systematic cover ups and whether there’s a place for gay men in the priesthood, Homo Novus is a novel that will likely provoke reactions from many readers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Fr. Linus Fitzgerald and young seminarian Orlando Rosario enter the story at a time of crisis. Orlando rushes Linus to a Springfield hospital straight off their flight back from a vacation in Puerto Rico. Linus is weak and feverish and wakes up in a spare, segregated unit of the hospital. There’s a spoiler in the book’s back cover blurb: Linus has been diagnosed with AIDS. The narrative proceeds via each man’s recollections of how this tragedy came to be, along with a few key present time interactions.
As Orlando returns home and somewhat aggressively takes up a daily routine, he’s stung by fragmented memories, through which we learn his history and his relationship with Linus. Raised in a devout, working-class Puerto Rican family, Orlando’s entrance to the priesthood was practically preordained. Opportunities for poor, brown-skinned boys were limited, and sending Orlando, at fourteen years old, to a pre-seminary boarding school in Massachusetts offered a symbolic improvement in family status as well as a better education and the promise of a good career.
More personally, becoming a priest provided shy, uncertain Orlando with his first chance to feel purposeful and special. Then he meets Fr. Linus, an unsparing instructor at the boarding school. Linus is brutal in his criticism of Orlando, yet he invites him into a private relationship where they spend time alone and go to dinner together off campus. Orlando is humbled and eager for the attention, and when Linus introduces him to physical intimacy, Orlando feels even more special.
Confined to his bed with a stigmatized and fatal diagnosis, Linus reflects bitterly on the slights and hypocrisies that led to his downfall. Like Orlando, he began seminary training at a young age and committed his life to a higher purpose before he had time to grow up and understand himself. The seminary was a harsh, austere place in the 1950s, and the authoritarian world of the priesthood has fortified him with a sense of self-importance as well as denials and rationalizations for his sexual and emotional exploitation of Orlando (and other teenage seminarians). Still there are cracks in his certainty. How is it that his hand, guided by God, can perform both the holiest of sacraments for his parishioners and the most reviled sins of the flesh? The Church provided little guidance on how to manage his sexuality within the confines of celibacy, even when Linus underwent a mandatory rehabilitation program to discreetly correct sexual transgressions among the clergy.
Cabrera is a stylish writer but not overly so, which makes for enjoyable reading. There are lovely lyrical moments in his prose and unusual structural choices in his narrative (some chapters are written in screenplay form), but they’re not overdone in a way that hurts the storytelling flow.
What one appreciates even more is how well Cabrera gets inside both characters, enabling them to show themselves to the reader and thereby allowing the reader to decide on their own how they should feel about them. Many will come to the conclusion that Linus is a despicable predator, yet his story forces one to grapple with the ways he was harmed and let down by the Church himself. Orlando is a victim, but one sees his contradictory impulses as well, which both surprise and humanize him as a struggling young adult.
Long passages that ruminate on the Church’s teachings on sin and priestly purity will be of greater interest to Catholic readers than non-Catholics, but overall, Homo Novus is an expertly crafted character-driven novel that should have wide appeal.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters