The first word, which is "Rockne," establishes a large part of the subject matter in this "novel of power, passion and conscience." The central story (interrupted by many flashbacks) takes place on the campus of Notre Dame University on Oct. 21 and 22, 1983 -- a football weekend, which implies a special kind of madness pervading South Bend, Ind.
But football is only part of the scenery in this novel, which concentrates on other bloody and complicated power games in the Catholic Church, government, academia, business and private life. In the long run (and "Father's Day" is a very long run indeed), the scenery turns out to be the most interesting part of this unever: but often appealing first novel.
The president of Notre Dame in 1983 is Father Thomas Kinsella (Theodore Hesburgh having taken a vaguely described post of international importance some time ago.) Father Kinsella, the son of a self-made Irish tycoon who will inevitable remind many readers of Joseph Kennedy, seems to be nearly as talented as his predecessor. But he is troubled and he faces hard decisions.
Visiting the campus is the father who is ostensibly named in the book's title: P.B. Kinsella, a millionaire charlatan who has made a fortune publicly in the building industry in Chicago and privately in a few other ventures. He is supposedly there for the football game -- but he has ulterior motives; he always has had and always will have ulterior motives. His life is reviewed in some detail in the flashbacks that are the best part of "Father's Day," beginning on this same campus in 1929 when he begins learning from Knute Rockne the virtues of hard-hitting and underhanded trickery -- the leitmotifs of his life. The elder Kinsella's biography is crammed with barely believable events and real names, which range from Al Capone to Richard J. Daley (whose biography Kennedy has already written in his earlier, nonfiction career). But the shady life of a wealthy old Irish con man is not the real story.
On the campus, besides the normal disruption of a football weekend, a wave of religious mania seems to be taking control of people. An unidentified young woman has tied herself to a cross planted on the university's golf course and is exhorting bystanders to repent their sins of the flesh. The idiot fringe, which exists on or near any large university but has a special flavor on Catholic campuses, is watching the spectacle and hoping for miracles; word has gone out on television (news units are there for the football game) and charter buses are rushing to the scene with hundreds of fresh fanatics. But that's not the main story, either.
What "Father's Day" is about, underneath the tumult and the shouting, the blarney and the wild anecdotes, the finely detailed campus landscape and the reminiscenes of old days in South Bend and Chicago, is the agonizing choice that Thomas Kinsella must make during this busy weekend. A visitor from Rome has come to see him and has offered him the most powerful position the Catholic Church has in the United States: the leadership of the Archdiocese of Chicago. At the same time, actress Maria Moore, with whom he has been (for the most part, platonically) in love for years, wants him to decide: Is he ready to leave the priesthood and marry her? And there is the pressure of his current position, which he loves dearly, fills superbly and is reluctant to leave to the clearly inferior man who is scheming and manipulating to become his successor.
It is too bad that this three-way choice is the true subject of "Father's Day," because it is the part that Eugene Kennedy handles least gracefully and endows with the least interest.
Eugene Kennedy is a former priest, a psychologist, obviously well acquainted with the Notre Dame campus and with the special problems and joys of the Catholic priesthood. He has more than 30 books to his credit, all proudly listed opposite the title page of his first novel, to which they form a curious but not inappropriate prelude. For many years he was one of the leading writers of popular Catholic nonfiction on human relations and the dynamics of Catholic living. The titles are mostly self-explanatory: "The Pain of Being Human," Sexual Counseling," "If You Really Knew Me, Would You Still Like Me?" "Living With Loneliness," "The People Are the Church."
Clearly he knows how to write a book, and a readable one, but he is still feeling his way into fiction and he shows most skill in the background areas -- the nonfiction components which are a major element in practically any work of fiction. Scattered through "Father's Day" are interesting. often witty essays about the psychology and folklore of being a Catholic in the 1980s. The book is worth reading for this material alone.
But there is, somehow, a curious non-involvement in the unusual triangle that engulfs Thomas Kinsella. At the book's climax, Maria, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, tells him, "Notre Dame is the other woman in your life, Tom, I know that. She always will be." And the reader wishes that the author would get back to the anecdotes and little essays he does so well.