Brian Payton’s debut novel is a dark and comic coming-of-age tale set in an all-male society. Taut, compelling, and remarkably assured, Hail Mary Corner leads readers into unfamiliar territory past an emotional frontier we all must cross: the uncertain ground between adolescence and adulthood.
High on a cliff above a pulp-mill town on Vancouver Island, sixteen-year-old Bill MacAvoy and his friends lead cloistered lives while other boys their age run free. It may be the fall of 1982, but inside the walls of their Benedictine seminary they inhabit a medieval world steeped in ritual and discipline—a place where black-robed monks move like shadows between doubt and faith.
Isolated from the outside, Bill and his friends develop a unique and often hilarious culture. Schooled in the virtues of sacrifice and service, they instead learn to challenge, resist, and wield power over one another’s lives.
On the road to certain expulsion, Bill discovers two secrets: one concerns Brother Thomas, the monk who watches his every move; the other involves his best friend, Jon. In Bill’s hands these secrets prove dangerous weapons. Handled carelessly, they trigger an event that threatens to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Told with compassion, wit, and wisdom, Hail Mary Corner is a powerful tale of friendship and tyranny, love and loneliness, betrayal and forgiveness.
“Brutally honest…. immediately captures the imagination. This is a story of a fall from grace, which happens so swiftly and triggers such tragedy that you wonder how a young teenage boy could ever recover. (Hail Mary Corner) offers no extenuating excuses or final absolution but leads to self-awareness and, ultimately, peace.”
“Startling in its originality…. This strangely gripping first novel ricochets between the sacred and the secular, between mass and masturbation at a seminary run by Benedictine monks. Yet it neatly circumvents the staleness of adolescent rites of passage. Instead it resonates with a vivid evocation of its Vancouver Island setting. That and an exhilarating mastery of language make it utterly fascinating and impossible to put down.”
“A frank and touching first novel, bringing rare twists to the well-trod literary path of the boarding-school bildungsroman. Payton’s grotty, doctrinaire cloister resonates with immediacy and authorial assurance…. Among coming-out stories, Payton’s tale seems to me unique. Narrated by a callow homophobe, it moves through prejudice, betrayal and violence to a conclusion of equal parts redemption and regret.…Pack(s) a cathartic wallop.”
—Globe and Mail
“Brian Payton’s first novel rises above its genre…. (Hail Mary Corner) is an accomplished debut…a deft and heartrending portrayal of questioning, dissolution and tragedy along the rocky path to manhood.”
“This is a first novel. It is also a fine novel…. Although the narrative has something serious to tell us about growing up, friendship and loss, the narration itself is funny and insightful. Time and time again, I found myself laughing and saying to others, ‘Listen to this.'”
“Hail Mary Corner (is) a gentle meditation on morality and maturity, learning and loss…. This is a thoroughly readable novel with moments of genuine humour, insight, and emotional depth, and Payton’s fiction debut should mark the start of a fine storytelling career.”
“Hail Mary Corner is an engrossing, funny and moving debut…. Payton very effectively evokes the awesome mystery of the Roman Catholic church, examining the secretive realm of faith and religion…. powerfully authentic….”
“A sensitive, original story about growing up…. Payton is a beguiling voice and his insight into a character-forging moment is so forthright it’s unsteadying. The laughs are plentiful and the sense of place is strong. Many a first novel should be so lucky.”
The Globe & Mail
“Coming of age and coming out” by Jim Bartley, Saturday, December 8, 2001
Vancouver writer Brian Payton has two non-fiction books and some award-winning travel writing to his credit. Hail Mary Corner adds a frank and touching first novel, bringing rare twists to the well-trod literary path of the boarding-school bildungsroman.
In 1982, Bill MacAvoy is 16 and a student at the Seminary of St. John the Divine, on Vancouver Island. As a believer, he leaves much room for pious influence. Required like all the boys to regularly assess his “potential religious vocation” on a scale of one to ten, he always gives himself a six, “high enough to show a spiritual pulse but low enough to avoid any undue attention.”
The boys are spoon-fed a diet of dogma and rigorous self-effacement; it seems their souls can never be washed clean. Turning the submissive grind to willful advantage, they team up and play “Romans and Christians” in the woods. The Christians always lose, but gain the moral high ground of martyrdom. A more illicit ritual is the late-night baptizing of new boys in the boggy seminary pond, making them swear allegiance to “REDRO . . . our call to anarchy”—a literal reversal of order.
Payton’s grotty, doctrinaire cloister resonates with immediacy and authorial assurance. The monks refuse “vanities like deodorant and toothpaste—baking soda was good enough. Shampoo was for women.”
The headmaster, Father Gregory, is “at least 108,” with dandruff spotting “the inside of his glasses like a filthy haze.” His office is known as “the Cave.” Here, interviewed with your father on Parents’ Day, Bill notes, “you suddenly realized your old man was almost as afraid as you were.”
Bill’s secret girlfriend, Mary, is as virginal as he. When she succumbs to Bill’s awkward seduction, their lust seems to him like love—the forbidden act validated by the feeling. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that his deepest feelings, though he can hardly acknowledge them, are for his classmate Jon.
Sleeping one frigid night in the open bell tower, Bill and Jon must huddle together to keep from freezing. The scene and subsequent ones evoke a charged intimacy that’s erotic without ever evolving to the overtly sexual. Jon and Bill clearly love each other. Bill is utterly and convincingly straight, yet the physical attraction and contact between the two boys is wonderfully tender and caring—until, that is, Jon’s stifled gayness escapes, torturously, from the binding chains of his piety.
Among coming-out stories, Payton’s tale seems to me unique. Narrated by a callow homophobe, it moves through prejudice, betrayal and violence to a conclusion of equal parts redemption and regret. Bill’s wisdom comes too late for Jon. But come it does, packing a cathartic wallop.
The Sunday Telegram
“Gripping Novels Tackle Tragedy” by Karen Shewbridge, January 6, 2002
Hail Mary Corner is an intriguing, brutally honest novel, which begins as a comic coming-of-age story set in 1982 in a Benedictine seminary on Vancouver Island.
The idea of young Canadian boys living such a strict, non-secular existence during the 1980s while others shimmied and swirled beneath the glitter of revolving, silver disco balls immediately captures the imagination.
The boys are funny and interesting in their uniqueness. Ostensibly, they are at the school to explore their potential for a religious vocation. However, they are still boys although they are living a more strict existence that most, they still find ways to explore their individuality and potential for mischief.
There is much more to this story than the typical adolescent angst and antics of young male characters in response to their force piety. This is a story of a fall from grace, which happens so swiftly and triggers such tragedy that you wonder how a young teenage boy could ever recover.
Readers will identify with the main character, 16-year-old Bill MacAvoy, from the beginning. He is a charismatic, resourceful person who is intelligent and popular with the other boys. He is also just rebellious enough to command respect not only from his peers, but from the brothers who run the school.
However, like many to whom such things come too easily or too early, Bill does not realize until it is too late that there is a certain responsibility to others that comes with being a leader. When he is called upon to make difficult choices, he unknowingly sets in motion events which he will forever regret and never forget.
When his best friend tries to tell him the single most important thing in his life, he refuses to listen and his friend’s words cut through his youthful fear and confusion, carving emotional wounds which will last a lifetime.
“What time is it?”
I pushed the button on the watch he had given me. The red numbers glowed to life. “It’s 10:20. So what?”
“Remember it. Ten-twenty. I want you to remember because it’s the time I tried to tell you the truth and you wouldn’t listen.” He sat straight up. “You’ll see it on the clock twice a day, you’ll see it in addresses, you’ll hear it in phone numbers-every time that number comes up you’ll remember. And so will I. Ten-twenty, Bill. Ten-twenty…”
Whatever the circumstances that compelled Brian Payton to write this book, I admire the absolute honesty of his writing.
There is no attempt to rationalize Bill’s actions or make excuses for his decisions. Instead, Bill tries to accept responsibility for what he did rather than try to explain it away as the misguided mistakes of youth.
When Bill receives a reminder of the past in the mail, he decides to return to the school to apologize to one of the brothers. Once there, however, he realizes he will not be able to find forgiveness for his actions from someone else. He must find it within himself.
This is a powerful novel of emotional discovery and self-knowledge. It offers no extenuating excuses or final absolution but leads to self-awareness and, ultimately, peace.
In his acknowledgments, Payton-who was born in the United States but lives in Vancouver-thanks (among others) Newfoundland writers Joan Clark and Michael Winter for their encouraging words for this, his first novel. It surely won’t be his last.
The Vancouver Sun
“Coming of Age: Brian Payton’s first novel rises above its genre” by Robert J. Wiersema, Saturday, December 22, 2001
Hail Mary Corner is an accomplished debut novel from Vancouver writer Brian Payton, author of Long Beach, Clayoquot and Beyond and Cowboy. It follows 16-year-old Bill MacAvoy and his close-knit group of friends through their junior year at the solemn Seminary of St. John the Divine on Vancouver Island in the early 1980s.
All the elements of a fairly pedestrian coming-of-age novel seem to be in place: a rebellious young protagonist; a group of close friends who find themselves growing apart; a time frame fare enough in the past to give a sense of both distance and authenticity; a romantic interest. And yet Hail Mary Corner is far from pedestrian. In fact, it is a deft and heartrending portrayal of questioning, dissolution and tragedy along the rocky path to manhood.
Where it deviates from the cliches of the genre is in Payton’s tender treatment of religion and sexuality, and his considerable skill as a writer. Much of the novel is spent on questions of faith— specifically, the schism between dogma and belief. Payton gives the cliched elements of defiance towards authority a fresh treatment here. The Benedictine Brothers are figures of dogma, interfering not only in the normal activities of adolescence (imposing curfews and restrictions) but also with the spiritual growth of their charges, substituting inarguable dogma for the religious enlightenment these young men obviously crave.
Payton treats sexuality in a refreshing manner. Again, the standard elements are present (Bill falls in love – or lust – with Mary, a local girl), but Payton is able to move beyond them. He treats the Bill-and-Mary relationship with admirable honesty, giving realistic depictions of the young lovers’ awkwardness, misunderstanding and cruelty.
Payton’s rendering of their first sexual encounter is neither particularly poignant nor played for laughs. Instead, he uses a kindly candor, showing emotional honesty and sensitivity that are so often lacking in writing of this kind.
He also brings honesty to his depiction of the relationship between Bill and his closest friend, Jon. These two old friends are casual with each other, skinny-dipping and breaking curfew. This casualness is shattered when Jon reveals to Bill that he is gay. Bill finds himself confused. He rethinks various moments of tenderness and affection in light of this new information, attempting to make sense of his feelings. That this search for understanding results in his being cruel to his closest friend is unfortunate, but it certainly rings true….
The Georgia Straight
By Tom Snyders, February 14, 2002
Catholicism! What a wealth of stories has sprung from the rich myths of the Church of Rome. What’s been called “the glam rock of religions”-with its chasubles and thuribles, monstrances and penances, and all that silk and brocade set against sackcloth and ashes-has much to favour it as a source for fiction. Its pervasiveness in western society gives its themes near-universal familiarity, its restrictive tenets fuel conflicts, and its elaborate accoutrements and rituals offer many opportunities for colourful descriptive passages.
Hail Mary Corner draws on all this narrative potential to tell what (in the hands of a lesser writer) could have been just another boys’-boarding-school coming-of-age story. And while Brian Payton’s plot doesn’t necessarily surprise, the grace with which he paces this story, his edible phrases, and an overall restraint allow him to touch on many of the genre’s resonant clichés without being too derivative.
Payton’s protagonist is 16-year-old Bill MacAvoy, a rebellious junior on a scholarship to Saint John the Divine, a fictional Benedictine seminary somewhere on Vancouver Island. It’s 1982, and MacAvoy’s life revolves around resisting church dogma and hanging with his school chums and his girl, Mary.
Much of this story could equally well have happened 50 years ago, but there are some fine early-’80s details, like a Rubik’s Cube speed test by a mousse-mad New Romantic, and the hero’s ironic prediction of the Pontiac Fiero’s destiny as the new Volkswagen Beetle.
While employing familiar devices-the kindly, eccentric, yet stern monks; the student coming to grips with being gay; struggles between faith and free will; boys finding trouble in a group or solo with girls; youthful cruelties and corporal punishment; the big interfaith intramural game; the kid who stutters; belonging and alienation; the quest for absolution—Payton also works the grey zones beyond the certainties of belief (and rebellious doubt), ultimately making of Hail Mary Corner a gentle meditation on morality and maturity, learning and loss, packed in a skinned-knees-and-elbows school drama.
This is a thoroughly readable novel with moments of genuine humour, insight, and emotional depth, and Payton’s fiction debut should mark the start of a fine storytelling career.
The Edmonton Journal
“A sensitive, original story about growing up: Plenty of laughs and strong sense of place in Vancouver writer’s first novel” by Helen Metella, January 27, 2002
Plunk a horde of teenaged boys inside a rural boarding school where the curriculum and mores are drenched in Catholic holy water and write a sensitive, original story about growing up. That’s the challenge first-time novelist Brian Payton set himself, and, mercifully, cleverly, the plot of this touching, entertaining tale of enlightenment does not turn on incidents of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy. Or by anyone else, for that matter.
Mind you, Payton doesn’t completely reconstruct the genre “boy becomes man.” Many of the expected devices are in play—irreverent shenanigans by a cadre of sweaty and profane goofballs; awkward and hollow communion with a teenage girl; sudden tragedy and course-altering trouble. Once character does struggle with his sexual identity, another with his faith, and a third with loyalty and regret. However, heavy emotional danger lurks as the boys lark around and Payton’s particular skill is that while he employs familiar episodes he doesn’t deliver the gut-wrenching punchy through familiar epiphanies.
Sixteen-year-old Bill MacAvoy is in his third year at St. John the Divine, a combination monastery, seminary and high school on Vancouver Island. The fictional compound, which “looked like a postcard from someplace a whole lot better than this,” is sternly run by Benedictine monks who hope that some of the youth to whom they are teaching good works along with English literature will hear a calling to God.
No chance of that happening to Bill, a willful working-class kid from Calgary whose alertness has prompted his philandering father to ship him out of the line of sight. For Bill and his buddies-shy Jon, athletic Connor and principled Eric-serious thought gives way to inspired idiocy as often as possible. However, when Bill stumbles onto delicate information about various of their cloistered society, his puny experience of life prevents him from processing it maturely and a disastrous domino effect begins.
Payton is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who specializes in adventure-travel articles and books, and his expertise shows in his firm grasp of action and pacing. He orchestrates a not-inconsiderable number of characters and subplots fluidly and draws each student and monk with distinct strokes. He’s also funny and has retained sharp memories of his youth-a scene in which the students “smell the syllabus” by inhaling the mimeograph fumes from a freshly printed teacher handout is satisfyingly silly… Payton is a beguiling voice and his insight into a character-forging moment is so forthright it’s unsteadying. The laughs are plentiful and the sense of place is strong. Many a first novel should be so lucky.
The Halifax Sunday Herald
By Paul Fiander March 3, 2002
If the rite of passage was considered a genre by itself, Brian Payton’s Hail Mary Corner would fit that category exactly. Life at a private Catholic school for boys on Vancouver Island is recalled by Bill MacAvoy, the narrator and a former student. At first, all is innocent enough. A group of boys in their mid-teens poke fun at each other and at their elders, the priests, as they attempt to learn both inside and outside the classroom.
But there is a growing sense that the fun and games will give way to something serious, perhaps even tragic. One suspects we will eventually learn the reason for the name given a turn in the road below the school—Hail Mary Corner.
Payton patiently lets the suspense build and the reader comes to expect the laughter to turn to tears. The author is sure-handed in his portrayal of the boys’ excesses, and of their frustration with allowing daily embarrassment and failure to erode their desire to amount to something worthwhile.
Brian Payton, a U.S.-born non-fiction writer living in Vancouver, makes his first venture into fiction with Hail Mary Corner.
The Victoria Times-Colonist
“Boys in a Pressure Cooker: Author drew on his own youthful experience for novel of seminary life” by Joseph Wiebe, February 24, 2002
Stumbling out of the incessant rain into the crowded Kitsilano café, my glasses immediately fog up. I tug out my handkerchief and work on the lenses while rather blindly scanning the bustling room for tables with single occupants. There are two options, and when my glasses are dry enough to see through again, I spot a face looking back at me questioningly from a window table that mirrors the author photo held comparatively in my mind. Fresh-faced with a precise, short haircut, and wearing a stylish dark sweater, Brian Payton looks even younger than the 35 he would later purport to be.
Payton’s first novel Hail Mary Corner has recently been published by Beach Holme Press, lately of Vancouver, though once based in Victoria. The same description applies to the author himself, who lived in Victoria as a teenager and into his 20’s while studying in the Creative Writing programme at the University of Victoria, but moved to Vancouver in 1990, where he has lived and worked ever since, except for three years spent on Denman Island.
Hail Mary Corner is an engrossing, funny and moving debut novel, set in the secretive world of a Benedictine seminary high on a cliff above Ennis, a fictional Vancouver Island pulp mill town. Payton sees the seminary environment as a “pressure-cooker” situation for the teenage boys that board there: “When you’re that young and you’re away from your family, you don’t have the apron strings to hide behind. You don’t have brothers or sisters or Dad to go to when you’re feeling insecure.” Into this crucible Payton casts his selfish, volatile, and confused 16 year-old protagonist, Bill MacAvoy, caught between boyhood and manhood, and saddled with a crisis of faith… and burgeoning hormones.
Like most of the boys studying at the Seminary of Saint John the Divine, Bill is more interested in the town girls than religious dogma. A charismatic natural leader and a gifted student on scholarship, he spends most of his time planning adventures for the close-knit quartet of troublemakers of which he is the head delinquent, and sneaking off to make out with Mary O’Brien, a girl from Ennis. Though he started out at the school with dreams of becoming a priest, he acknowledges that “as time went by and increasing doses of testosterone pulsed through my veins, it was becoming abundantly clear I wasn’t cut out for the job.”
One of the monks, Brother Thomas, warns him that he has taken Bill on as his “special project” for the year, telling him, “I believe in you and I’m trying to stop you from wrecking your life. When I was your age, I was lucky enough to have someone hold a mirror up to me. Now I’m returning the favour.” Bill’s arrogantly teenage response: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or puke.”
Hail Mary Corner possesses the ring of authenticity, and well it should; its author attended a Catholic seminary for a year-and-a-half at the same time as his protagonist (1982). Later in life, Payton realized that experience was unique among his peers, and thus might serve as a good foundation for a novel. Just how autobiographical is the story? Payton himself was asked not to return to the seminary halfway through his final year. “Thanks for coming by but it’s obviously not working out,” is how he paraphrases the seminary’s attitude towards him at the time. As he laughs at the memory, I spot a twinkle in his eyes that brings to mind his protagonist Bill, and find myself wondering how similar to his creation the author was as a teenager.
Nonetheless, Payton insists the story is original, though many of the characters are composites of various people he met at the seminary. He remains close friends with some of the guys he met there, none of whom became priests. “When they got the book, they flipped through it at a lightning pace looking for themselves. They all felt relieved when they didn’t see themselves in there, but saw events that did happen, but happening to someone other than them for a different reason. When they got to the end, they said OK, he’s taken the spirit of what happened there, but not specifically.”
Payton also avoided directly copying the priests and monks he met at the seminary for their corresponding characters in the novel. Though they are important to the story, he was “less interested in them than in the kids.” Nonetheless, the clerics in the novel are fully realized, and painted with a surprisingly sympathetic brush. This is not a novel about priests perpetrating depraved acts on innocent children in a cloistered setting. “I respect them,” Payton says of the priests and monks. “I think they’re heroic in a sense because they live their life according to what they believe, and I don’t necessarily believe what they believe, but the fact that they do it with the commitment they do, I respect, and I learned something from them for that.”
Payton even sent the book to “the most receptive monk”, wanting to make sure someone at the seminary read it before learning about it from an outside source. The monk responded favourably, admitting “that he enjoyed the book even though he’s not supposed to.”
The novel is about secrets, the terrible toll they can take on a young, developing psyche, and the explosive consequences they can have when used to gain power. It is also about the secrets that are inherent in religious faith. Payton very effectively evokes the awesome mystery of the Roman Catholic church, examining the secretive realm of faith and religion, and questioning Catholic tenets without overly criticizing or condemning them.
As the novel progresses, Bill questions his faith more and more, testing its boundaries as he tests the limits of the patience of the priests and monks. When he learns two important secrets, one about his best friend Jon and one about Brother Thomas, his recklessness puts others in danger, too. The careless decisions he makes about those explosive secrets converge in the climax of the novel, the repercussions of which echo profoundly through the rest of Bill’s life.
By casting an anti-hero as the protagonist, Payton’s intention was to manipulate the automatic trust the reader initially allows a first-person narrator. “I find that more interesting myself when I read novels like that,” the author says. “Setting up expectations and then either undermining them or making you re-evaluate your expectations is a more challenging read.”
Payton succeeds completely in this regard. One cannot help but be charmed by Bill, even though his actions and decisions have terrible consequences on those around him. He sees the reader’s attitude towards Bill like an older sibling to a younger brother: “You love your kid brother and you expect him to do good things, so sometimes you just want to smack him in the head. I wanted to smack this guy so many times. You know he’s a generally good person but he’s very immature. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and he screws up big time.” At this point of the interview, I feel compelled to point out to Payton that I am the youngest of six siblings. Maybe this is why I felt such a strong connection with Bill.
Another powerfully authentic aspect of the novel is the intensity of the friendships between the teenage characters. Payton believes “you turn your back on your family for a period of time in your adolescence, I think we all do in a way, and put more value and stock in those friendships than you do in familial bonds.” He feels this is even more pronounced in the “high stakes” environment of the seminary boarding school, and that theme is interwoven throughout Hail Mary Corner.
The title of the novel refers to a dangerous blind corner on the road up the hill to the monastery, which, on a deeper level, also represents a spiritual crisis in the journey to self-understanding: that moment when one’s previously clear vision becomes obscured. In Hail Mary Corner, Brian Payton weaves an affecting examination of the events and decisions that culminate in that crucial moment of one young man’s life.
Payton makes his living entirely from freelance writing, mostly non-fiction travel articles and the occasional government contract to pay the bills.
When asked to compare writing fiction and non-fiction, he says, “I find non-fiction more difficult because you have to tell the truth. You’re constrained by that. If you want people to say something more poignantly or events to conspire in a way that’s more telling and they don’t, well then you have to work with what you’ve got. But in fiction you can make it so, and I find that freeing.” It took him several years to complete Hail Mary Corner because he had to realize that distinction. “That’s why I had to throw away the first draft, because it was an autobiography, and I said, no this is going to be a novel, it’s fiction, so tear it apart and start over again.”
Payton hasn’t struggled as much with his second book, a completely non-autobiographical novel set in World War Two entitled The Wind Is Not a River. He intends to send it out to publishers in the new year, and with Hail Mary Corner as a calling card, it is doubtful he will have to wait very long for a positive response.