185 pages, Beekman Press
Review by Marc Nash
This is a book about cognitive dissonance, the ability to deeply hold two contrary beliefs simultaneously. All its main characters succumb to a pull-me, push-you of their emotions as they realise their beliefs have feet of clay and yet still follow them. And why wouldn’t they, since those beliefs revolve around a religious cult?
Malcolm owns a coffee and pastry shop and is in mourning for his dead lover Colin. He has a keen mind and desires to make his shop a centre for debating ideas “a coffee klatch with pretensions”. However his pastry chef Carlos sees his opportunity to twist it to his own ends. Instead of a talking shop, they conspire to create a religion with Malcolm as the Prophet and Carlos the business manager. They call it “Religion without Rules” and Malcolm’s shaken certainties after his lover’s death are embodied by establishing a huge role for doubt as much as the role of faith. Chocolate éclairs wryly replace the wafer as the Host, while there is a hilarious section where Malcolm’s attempt to compose a skeptical doctrine of the signs of mystical experiences while he himself fasts, is constantly interrupted and undermined by the hotel’s room service trolley of culinary delights.
While the cult grows at a huge and profitable rate, the motives of the followers in joining up is never probed. But rather than that being a flaw in the novel, the reader quickly appreciates that if the cult prophet himself can delude himself as to his own motives, then why wouldn’t a host of people in search of certainty also fall under the spell? Malcolm knows he’s head of a cult and that his pulpit proclamations are empty. He knows Carlos is conning him both in business and the bedroom. He knows that his fantasy love object Tyler is a lookalike of his dead lover Colin. And yet he continues to pursue all these aims, desires and actions. Sometimes we do know the truth, but are utterly powerless to change our course of actions in order to attain it.
The other thrust of Diary of a Heretic is that of the tease. Carlos the humble pastry chef starts off merely preparing sumptuous cakes and breakfasts which have both Malcolm and us the readers salivating. Carlos fondles and palpates Malcolm stuffed full of calorific food and fit to burst with his aroused desire. But Carlos plays Malcolm before the reader’s very eyes for a good chunk of the book and the reader is invited to surrender to its deliciousness anyway. It’s a grooming process and quite uncomfortable in places but reads utterly authentically.
Once they have consummated their business relationship-cum sex, the tension shifts to the mental tease of the relationship between Malcolm and his nursemaid-cum-minder Maggie. Malcolm is utterly dependent on her emotionally and shares all his intimacies with her to keep him sane among the lies that he is peddling and his disorienting celebrity that keeps him isolated under lock and key. Their relationship is a tease as it veers between the poles of love and hate, underpinned all the while by the knowledge that as a gay man he has no sexual interest in Maggie and an underlying suggestion that Maggie may wish for that to be different. It’s a far more sympathetic relationship to follow than that of Carlos and Malcolm which is transparently manipulative. This is a relationship of unrequited love and fragile neediness.
Ultimately for me, I found myself far more interested in the key relationships than any social satire aspect. I don’t know if this was the author’s intent, that the idea of a cult was to just serve as the context for these tangled relationships to play out, but it did reduce the social commentary’s significance in my eyes. If you like a read that profoundly maps the ups and downs of human relationships, then this book is for you. If you want a trenchant dissection of the operation of a cult, then this possibly isn’t the book. Once I appreciated this, I allowed myself to be wrapped up in its human warmth and foibles.