If the global Catholic church, with its gilded cathedrals and funny scepters and sputtering reluctance to embrace modern values, seems like a relic of a bygone era, that’s because in a bygone era it was a colossal, central force in the world—choosing kings, fielding armies, setting the rhythms of daily life. The church we know today is the flash of that supernova. It’s difficult to imagine what the church was like in its gaseous, supergiant prime. But Nick Taylor asks us to do just that in his second novel, Father Junipero’s Confessor.
Two boys from the Spanish island of Mallorca take their vows to become Franciscan friars. One of them—our narrator, Francisco Palóu—is serious, clever, and skilled in the scholarly arts. The other, Juan Crespi, is full of holy passion, governed by strange visions and devout impulses. Both are competing for the attention of a mysterious new teacher who wears an enormous crucifix, whips himself with chains, and sleeps on the floor of his cell for only two hours at a time. The year is 1740. The teacher is Junipero Serra.
All three friars sail to New Spain to do the Lord’s work (and the Spanish crown’s) of building Christian missions along the California coast, both to increase the faith and to pacify the natives, effectively drawing a blueprint for the “civilization” of the American west. All the while, Father Serra showers his affections on the capricious, untrustworthy, and sometimes evil Juan Crespi. The injustice of Father Serra’s love sends the righteous Francisco spiraling toward bitterness and madness.
This is rough territory for a writer, requiring meticulous historical research (Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespi were real; they wrote competing accounts of Father Serra’s life), deep sympathy with a worldview in which miracles are accepted as facts, and the realist point of view of a contemporary novelist. Father Junipero’s Confessor succeeds thanks to Taylor’s expert pacing and calm mastery of the material. At the dawn of California and American Catholicism, Taylor lets us gaze at the sun.
– Brian Hurley