A Catholic and a Jihadi Walk into a Storeroom…

Faith, terror, and temptation converge in satirical campus novel

Prin—Princely St. John Umbiligoda, son of Kingsley—is, much like his creator, Randy Boyagoda, a father of four daughters, the child of Sri Lankan parents, and an English professor at a Catholic college at the University of Toronto. Prin specializes in studying depictions of marine creatures in Canadian literature and makes frequent pointed references to Michael Ondaatje’s sea horse simile in The English Patient.

The novel opens provocatively with the line: “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.” Toasting the lemurs with a glass of sparkling juice after attending mass in a rundown Scarborough church has long been a New Year’s Day tradition for the family. This year, though, Prin has decided it will be a good location for revealing his prostate cancer diagnosis, and impending surgery, to his children. But when the zoo suffers a power outage and the whole family is trapped in the lemur house with another family, events are out of his control. The father of the other family, portrayed as a clan of emotionally clumsy rednecks with twins named Jayden and Brayden, steps in and takes over the big reveal: “Girls! Listen up! Your dad’s got cancer of the privates. But don’t worry, he’s totally going to kill this buck!”

Prin makes it through the surgery but is left impotent. Once he’s more or less back on his feet, he is taken aback to discover that his university is in genuine danger of being closed. In a jab by the author at the marketization of education, the university is left with two options: become either an eldercare facility offering fun classes to its residents or an online university serving the imaginary and recently civil war-torn Middle East country of Dragomans. As the comic novel must have it, the consultant brought in to facilitate this transition is Wende, Prin’s grad school girlfriend, who created her consultancy after her own university was in a similar position. This brings back a whole welter of complicated feelings for Prin: having long believed he was happy with his cheerful, plump, and uncomplicated Catholic Milwaukee wife, Molly, he now understands that his feelings for his prickly, bony, career woman ex-girlfriend are not necessarily over. Both female characters are somewhat sketchy and caricatured; Prin does not seem to consider that their internal lives might be as rich and dense as his own. In fact, you might say that Prin’s world is divided into two kinds of people: Prin the star, and supporting actors who aren’t Prin, who must be either shadowy or larger than life.

Boyagoda is a lovely stylist with a keen ear for language and dialogue, but the novel can feel a little too preaching-to-the-choir easy. Original Prin delves humorously into the murky political and religio-political motives and machinations of daily life, but the absurd set up feels like a missed opportunity: the satire could have been stronger, and made a more serious point, if it had stepped even further away from reality.

There is an interlude in Milwaukee, in which a patriotic rally is hijacked by a terrorist threat—a fake one, as the left-wing shooters turn out to have been wielding paintball guns, although that doesn’t reduce the sheer terror that Prin and his nephews experience. Not long after, Prin becomes the first lecturer to travel to Dragomans—and in Wende’s company, conveniently enough.

In Dragomans, Prin gives his sea creatures lecture. At a party afterwards he is trapped in an awkward moment with Wende: she propositions him, and he gives in to the temptation to kiss her, almost certain that it can’t lead anywhere. The surgically induced impotence here functions as the priest’s absolution in advance for what he knows is a sin but is going to try to do anyway. This proposition may or may not have been a trap, but the footage of it certainly comes in handy for the shady entrepreneur trying to pull the university deal together.

As they are on the way back to Canada, things get worse. Here the novel culminates in a genuine terror attack mirroring the earlier paintball incident: a group of extremists shooting customers in the airport duty-free shop. Wende is shot dead almost instantly (the atheist receiving her come-uppance, perhaps), while Prin hides out in a storeroom for what feels like hours. Eventually he’s joined by one of the shooters, Dawud. Prin then has to pretend to be a shooter himself, a recent but zealous convert who has been kept so separate from his faith by his Western upbringing that he barely knows what he’s doing. During a brief and hilarious back and forth about who’s the better Muslim and who’s been tricked by the CIA, Prin and Dawud sound like two teenagers arguing over who knows more about a band:

“What sites do you go to? You can’t just Google ‘I want to be a better Muslim,’ bro—”

“Actually, yes you can. That’s what I did. That’s how it started,” Prin said.

“Well, okay, you’re right. I actually started with Twitter: hashtag headmeat.”

“But then what sites did you go to? Dabiq? What sheikhs do you follow? Yacoub? And don’t just say ‘those ones’ because I know you’re bullshitting,” he said.

This is one of the novel’s funniest moments. But elsewhere, as is often the case in comic novels, events are overdramatic and characters buffoonish. This defuses the possibility of a more meaningful, complex investigation into people’s interior lives. There are several missed opportunities, both comic and serious, to reflect on the nature of faith—-particularly in the encounter with the jihadi. This could have allowed the reader to be more convinced by Prin’s faith. (He goes to Dragomans because he thinks he’s heard a voice from God -telling him to go—but since Prin’s religious belief often feels more like another caricature for comic effect, it’s not clear how seriously we’re meant to take it.)

There’s a fine set piece with an annual father-and-son pickleball tournament where Prin and Kingsley play against Kiwi Ken and his son Craig. As both pairs begin to use racially charged insults to psyche each other out, Ken, a New Zealander, says to Craig:

“Careful, son. You know what they’re doing. Double standards in this country, never forget. You and I could be mistaken for used feminine papers, or even worse, for Australians, and no one would say boo. But if we said something off-colour, if you know what I mean, about our colourful friends across the net, we’d be disqualified from this tournament and probably kicked out of the country.”

While this is a cringingly accurate depiction of the aggrieved, innocent white man, it also leaves the reader wishing that Boyagoda would pin down more complex, more nuanced targets with his sharpened nib. Kiwi Ken and Craig are meant to be one-sided farcical pop-up targets; we don’t need them to be filled in and well-rounded. The problem is that this reductivism recurs throughout the novel with both situations and people. Although this book strolls enjoyably through a plethora of funny and sharp ideas, I would like to see a writer of Boyagoda’s skill find a more defined, cohesive target for his satire.