The Man Who Saved My Soul

By Tony Hendra

Random House. 280 pp. $24.95

Tony Hendra has had a fine career as a comedian, working with John Cleese and Graham Chapman; he was editor in chief of Spy magazine and an original editor of National Lampoon. But don't expect anything remotely funny from this book. This is a memoir masquerading as a homage to what must have been a truly kind and decent man, the Father Joe of the title.

Really, it's about Tony Hendra and how he turned out to be the way he is. Hendra's parents had a mixed marriage, religiously speaking; his mother was a fairly standard devout Catholic, his father a secular craftsman who made not a very good living constructing stained-glass windows. The England he grew up in was still reeling from World War II. Little Tony Hendra did some puny shoplifting, sneaked away from school to go to the movies, and then, when he was 14, did what many 14-year-old boys do if they get lucky: He found himself a female who allowed him (and herself) some sexual experimentation.

This particular young woman, Lily, had a baby and an extremely peculiar husband, a Catholic convert who was obsessed with the pedagogical, philosophical fine print of the religion. They lived in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, and the wife, obviously going mad with depression and loneliness, decided to fall in love with Tony. He was not exactly sentimental about the whole thing. "My eyes ratcheted nervously down to her breasts. They were quite small, of slightly different sizes and rather flat. Well, actually, very flat." Beggars can't be choosers, however, and soon, when the husband's gone, a lot of heavy petting got underway. (Hendra refers to it as an affair, but if I read correctly, they never do the deed.) They got caught by the crazy husband, who decided the best thing to do for Tony is to take him to spend a day or two at a Benedictine monastery, so that he might confess to a spiritual adviser named Father Warrilow. The visit occurred during Holy Week. Tony heard the monks singing Gregorian chants; he walked around the wild and beautiful countryside surrounding the monastery. When Tony met Father Warrilow -- and this was sometime in the postwar era, when just eating a hamburger on Friday could elicit the wrath of Heaven -- Tony blurted out his sordid tale of impure thoughts and deeds and almost-actual adultery.

Father Warrilow's only response (he liked to be called Joe) was to murmur, poor Lily. Well, yes, poor Lily, married to a religious nutcase, forced to look to a 14-year-old boy for emotional sustenance, but Tony hasn't thought about it until now. Tony's only sin, Father Joe told him, was selfishness.

The upshot of all this was that young Tony fell in love with Father Joe, the monastic life, the beauty of Catholic ritual and, of course, God. (We never hear about poor Lily again.) Up until now Tony had been prey to obsessions and fads, but this one won't go away. He visited the monastery as often as he could and lived for his moments with Father Joe. He planned to go into the monastery right out of high school but took entrance exams to the university more or less as a lark, got early admission to Cambridge and, against his better judgment, went.

His life changed. He went one night to see Peter Cook's legendary sketch comedy group, Beyond the Fringe, laughed himself sick and decided his real vocation was to make the world laugh. He proved to be very good at it. Along the way he married a beautiful woman and had a couple of kids but neglected them because of his career. (As male sins go, this is about as venial as cutting school to go to the movies.) He fell in with bad companions, did some drugs.

But his real sin was peevishness. He loved his days at National Lampoon, but when he was pushed out by P.J. O'Rourke, Hendra, not at all a good sport about it, said O'Rourke turned the magazine into "a supremely unfunny catalogue of masturbatory, automotive and racist fantasies, defanging the magazine completely and presiding over a collapse in circulation from which it never recovered." And Hendra had worse things to say about John Blair, who kicked him off a British television comedy. (Didn't Father Joe ever mention loving thy neighbor as thyself?) Hendra married again, forcefully bullied into it by the woman, and brought three more kids into the world.

He thought of himself as tormented and put-upon, and it would seem he was perfectly sincere about that. He brought his son for one last visit to a desperately ill Father Joe. Here the book ends. It is a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses, so it should sell well.