W. R. Wilkerson’s emotional novel, The Monk’s Son, incorporates several subjects that not so many years ago might have precluded it from publication to a mass audience. The sensitive, factual treatment of homosexuality, drugs and prostitution underlines how an accomplished writer can turn even the most charged of subjects into a compelling, inclusive and readable story.
The central characters in Wilkerson’s story are two men growing into middle age and searching for meaning in their lives. They meet as 16-year-olds in a monastery at the outset of WWII. Steven is a callow youth who has spent his entire life as a ward of the abbey—Brother Dominic found him abandoned in a nearby field. The other lad, Michael, is a rebellious and abused delinquent, orphaned in a bombing raid and taken in by the monks when they open a war-time shelter, emboldened by the successes they felt they’d experienced in raising Steven.
Steven’s naiveté and Michael’s worldliness set up the classic test between good and evil. Steven experiences Michael’s seduction and comes to love him, although he refuses to engage in ongoing sexual encounters. Steeped in conflicting emotions, Steven dedicates himself to the monastic life, following Brother Dominic’s mentorship. Michael, on the other hand, engages in sex, mischief and insubordination, throwing himself into his painting and drawing, turning out work that Dominic wants to destroy to prevent further criticism by the monks, but which Steven treasures as artistic masterpieces. Finally, Michael heads to art college on a scholarship, thanks to a portfolio of his work Steven presented on his friend’s behalf.
By skilfully inter-cutting Steven’s and Michael’s stories, Wilkerson sharpens the tension and drama of their lives. While Steven finds relative contentment and resignation with his life and achievements at the abbey, Michael suffers miserably in his secular choices. When Steven questions the idea of God, he finds solace in prayer, peace in the monastery’s garden, and comfort in the friendship of his brother monks. When Michael’s tests beset him—and there are many as he spirals downward—he rails against religion, rants at God and turns for comfort to sex and drugs. Eventually Michael’s desperation leads him back to the monastery and reconciliation with Steven, before a heart wrenching conclusion to their story.
The son of Billy Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter, W.R.’s earlier works include The Man Who Invented Las Vegas, All-American Ads of the 40s, Las Vegas Vintage Graphics, and How Would You Vote If You Were Allowed To? W.R. Wilkerson’s current novel is first-class in style and unique in its portrayal of good versus evil. Although graphically descriptive at times, the sex, drugs and associated violence are never gratuitous. The Monk’s Son illuminates with its treatment of human issues and motivations, and the tragic illustration of how “from great hell comes paradise.”
Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham
A tale of two young men—one drawn to the life of the body, the other to the cloth—who find friendship in their shared pain and search for connection.
The story—with echoes of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund—begins in the early days of World War II when Brother Dominic, a monastery doctor, discovers a baby abandoned in the nearby forest. Despite the threat of emotional ties and worldly contamination, the Abbot allows the child to be raised in the monastery, and the boy, Steven, soon becomes the darling of the cloister. After the war, with the countryside full of parentless children, the monks turn the monastery into an orphanage, testing the limits of their self-discipline. It’s then that pious, sheltered Steven meets his soul mate in Michael, a rebellious artist. Steven’s paternal relationship with Dominic, his sexuality and his belief in God are all tested by the irreverent Michael. Though the story attempts to track the lives of these two men, the narrative diverges quickly and refocuses on Michael. While Steven remains at the monastery, Michael travels to London to pursue a career as an artist, but heartache and drugs soon destroy his ambition. After a period of hard living, he returns to the monastery to dry out. There, Steven cares tirelessly for his friend, nursing him through withdrawal as he guides him back to his art. Wilkerson ably illuminates the tumult of Michael’s descent into addiction, but gives less attention to Steven’s quiet spiritual journey.
At times, the story is unbalanced and glosses over a more complex examination of the men’s sexuality and the trespass of the modern world on monastery life. The provocative descriptions of Michael’s journey anchor the tale firmly in the temporal world, but the serene prose, charged action and sensuality of the characters compensate for the abrupt leaps in plot. Though failing to capture a sense of place—either 1960s London, or the imposed rigidity of the monastery—the author offers an intriguing glimpse into the inner lives of these two uncompromising men. Entertaining and emotionally raw.
Cup O’ Books
There was so much in this novel to which I could connect both emotionally and intellectually, it is a given that I loved this story. It is not that there were no disappointments, there were. Yet these were so outweighed by the many moments of delight and insight into the human soul they are hardly worth mentioning. I will, however get around to talking about them.
The novel’s opening chapters lead the reader to believe that this will be a story of a foundling raised by monks in pre-war England. After the war, however, the monastery becomes an orphanage for boys whose families were casualties of the conflict. At this point it becomes the story of Steven, the foundling, and Michael, the orphan, and their subsequent journeys to adulthood. The two adolescents struggle to find meaning in the world. Steven is rooted in the religious life; Michael is very much a product of the secular world. Although the two have very different backgrounds and attitudes, their experiences are all too familiar. Both experience a betrayal by their first love that is so painfully recorded that it is difficult to read. Steven, betrayed by Michael, seeks a way out through attempted suicide. Betrayed by a fellow art student named Suzanne, Michael turns to a life of drugs, prostitution, and crime, which is also a form of attempted suicide. When Michael returns to the monastery for help in kicking his drug habit, it is Steven who nurses him back to health and heals himself in so doing. He puts the crucifix back on the wall and begins to sing in the choir again. Michael goes back to his painting.
Steven and Michael’s search for meaning in life (God) is a universal quest. Steven, like his foster father Brother Dominic, found God in Nature. Michael found an answer in his art. Brother Thomas found fulfillment in cooking. We all seek, but our answers must be our own. Reading the passages of Dominic’s teaching Steven all he knows about plants and gardening were a delight for me. I was reminded of Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey, where he describes nature as a healer, a comfort, and a teacher. Emily Dickenson’s poem, Some Keep the Sabbath, is nearer to my experience. She kept the Sabbath at home in her garden. It was there that she found peace and felt closer to God.
There were some disappointments. I looked for more of a feel for the day-to-day life in the monastery. We see glimpses as it applies to the main characters, but it left me wanting to know more. I also felt, despite the book’s title, The Monk’s Son, it became much more Michael’s story than Steven’s. Little of Michael’s angst is left to the imagination, yet much of Steven’s inner struggles were.
I need to mention the two miracles that occurred. They both defy credulity, but I fell right into the wonder of them in spite of that. The going to the stream, the outstretched arms, the breadcrumbs, and the flocking of birds to feed on these crumbs causes a release from despair for Dominic, Steven, and finally Michael. The blooming of all the flowers in the greenhouse and the laboratory as a sign from Dominic, deceased at that point, made me smile. I think I just want to believe it could be possible.
Bravo, Mr. Wilkerson.
The acknowledgments at the end of The Monk’s Son speak for the volume: Wilkerson, primarily a historian with a few nonfiction titles under his belt, spent over twenty years on this particular book. With beautifully crafted language, poignant characters and themes, and an interesting setting, The Monk’s Son is a must-read.
Steven St. Francis is found as an infant on the grounds of a monastery in England. The time is the early twentieth century; Brother Dominic is a relatively new monk, after losing his wife and newborn child. Dominic is the monastery physician and nurses the infant to heath and into childhood. Despite initial protests, Steven becomes the monks’ treasure and Dominic’s true son.
After the air raids come to England, the monks open a school for orphaned boys at the monastery. Steven’s roommate is rambunctious Michael, an artist with a brilliant mind but little interest in anything other than alcohol and his sexuality. The rest of the novel follows the two boys as they travel separately to manhood. Michael attends art school in London; Steven takes his vows and his father’s position at the monastery.
When untimely events bring Michael and Steven back together, the old, solid friendship of the two must bridge the gap that has divided them. Michael’s pain meets Steven’s peace in a bond that crosses barriers.
The beauties of the scenes in this novel are still resonating with me as I write this. Wilkerson deals with some touchy subjects, never glossing over anything and yet not being offensive in the least. The Monk’s Son is not only a wonderful story but could be a guiding example for writers on how to craft a vivid tale.
“From great hell comes Paradise”
When Brother Dominic finds a baby hidden in a field, the real world crashes into the peaceful cloisters of an English Abbey. It is 1940 and German bombs threaten the country side.
The foundling, Steven, grows up in the abbey. Over time, the monks take in other abandoned children, including sixteen-year-old Michael, a defiant artist who upsets the community’s tranquility. The boy’s friendship challenges the monks’ sacred vows and takes Steven to the brink of death.
Michael leaves the serenity of the abbey and plunges into the turmoil of ’60s London. But disastrous sexual encounters and his battle with the drug called Paradise drive his life to take darker and darker turns. Steven, meanwhile, is nurtured and strengthened by his faith and the abbey community. He takes his final vows and dons the monk’s habit.
The novel has many facets that appeal to different people, like orphanage, art, religion…
When at last Michael’s world spirals out of control, he returns to the monastery in despair. His reunion with Steven brings them together in ways that they would never have thought possible.
My impression: The story is beautifully written, is gripping and the style quite fluid which holds your attention through out. The author succeeds in painting a vivid canvas of the events. The novel has many facets that appeal to different people, like orphanage, art, religion, philosophy, and the darker sides such as homosexuality, drugs etc.
My Recommendation: Strongly recommended.
Friendship is the masterpiece of nature . . . Wilkerson tells it beautifully!
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “friendship is the masterpiece of nature” and W.R. Wilkerson, in his book The Monk’s Son, tells us this beautiful story. I loved his storytelling of two young boys that meet while in the care of Franciscan monks weaving into this tale their friendship, the beauty of nature & art as well as the difficulties of their estrangement as they grow apart through separation in the passing years. Don’t worry about some slow parts, in the beginning . . . take it from a former 12 year Catholic School girl and the importance of vigilant detail – thank you, Sister George Francis!
Believe me when I say it will be well worth the ride for you as it was for me as I found myself page turning quickly through those last 100 pages as his story unravels like petals on a flower into its most beautiful ending. Thank you, W.R. Wilkerson, for the wonderful ride!
L.C. Cimmer (Laguna Beach, California)
This book moved me; it captivated me and it held me in its power throughout the time I was reading it. I had no idea when I picked it up that the story of monks in England would get under my skin, but it did. And when the story moved to London and developed its subplot of drugs, the art scene and relationships that revolved around both, it pulled me in even further. Switching back and forth between lost souls searching for meaning in the city, lost souls finding meaning in the monastery; searching for love, finding it, losing it, rising above the obstacles that get in the way—it was an emotional read and it involved the whole way through.
The Monk’s Son by W.R. Wilkerson III reads like a great film that wholly absorbs the viewer from the opening scene…where there is no separation between the viewer and, in this case, the reader and the story.
I felt as though I was a part of the narrative the entire time I read. And each time I opened the book the innocent excitement of entering another world awaited me.
Wilkerson’s writing is more like an actual recollection of the life experiences of his characters rather than a story being told by a third person. He is clearly an author who experiences and observes life with an alarming attention to its most subtle components. The poignant development of his characters and the intricacies of detail sculpt compelling realities for the reader that are the result of a deep interior understanding of his subject.
The Monk’s Son has the rare and perfect balance of expression and restraint. Wilkerson never gives the reader too much, always luring you into the next scene, the next moment.
There are so many gifts in this book, so many jewels to contemplate. From the pure literary prose to the psychological and spiritual wisdom of its revelations, it is a book that should be read aloud. I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to return to the reality of classical storytelling, one that leaves you with impressions that you will be carrying with you long after you’ve finished the book.
Intriguing Title, Stunning Cover—This Book Just Sucked Me In and Didn’t Disappoint!
I absolutely loved this book! I saw it in a small wire display while waiting in line at a local cafe (a generic Starbuck’s), and I picked it up because I was intrigued by the title and the stunning cover. There were a few people ahead of me, so I started reading the first few pages just to keep myself occupied while waiting for my turn to place my order. I was immediately sucked in by the beautiful descriptions, the plot, and the interesting characters, and I ended up purchasing the book along with my coffee and muffin!
This book did not let me down, and I enjoyed it immensely. I loved how the author had a few different storylines going on at the same time (they all ultimately tied into each other). The book is primarily about Steven, who was abandoned at birth, and Michael , who was orphaned during WWII. Both boys were adopted and raised in the monastery, but they ultimately end up leading very different lives—one filled with spirituality and devotion to God, and the other filled with art, sex, drugs, murder, and overall depravity.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will tell you that you do NOT want to miss this book.
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