Posted at 12:10 AM on February, 17 2015
The Latest In a Series of Love Affairs
“Holy Fool,” the debut novel by Kenneth Butler, owes a little something to Sinatra, perhaps, but more to the creative—and spiritual—passion of its author.
MANCHESTER, N.H., February 17, 2015—They’re like a series of love affairs, the various events that led to the publication last month of “Holy Fool,” the novel that had also been Kenneth Butler’s thesis project in Southern New Hampshire University’s low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.
One affair was in Hollywood, where in the 1980s Butler spent five years as a story editor at New World Pictures, the studio founded by B-movie auteur Roger Corman. “I had grown up watching Alfred Hitchcock movies with my mother,” Butler said, “and film was my first love as a storytelling medium.”
Those years yielded some great anecdotes, one of which involved the day Frank Sinatra came to the MGM/UA studio to film an interview about “The Manchurian Candidate,” the classic 1962 film in which Sinatra had starred.
Butler was assigned to greet him, and Sinatra was no sooner in the lobby than he said he needed a Scotch. But at ten in the morning the studio commissary was closed, as were all the bars in Culver City—Butler checked. Finally Butler broke into the office of director Martin Ritt (“Norma Rae,” “Hud,” “Hombre”) and found a bottle of Scotch and a couple of glasses.
Then Sinatra said that he never drank alone. Butler protested that he was on the job. Ol’ Blue Eyes was unimpressed.
“Frank was as smooth as silk in that interview, but after three Scotches I was cross-eyed,” Butler said. “I ended up getting sent home that day by my boss.”
After five years of that, Butler sent himself home. “I wrote five screenplays there,” he said. “One was optioned, another one sold but never filmed. I just wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Home was Portsmouth, NH, with its thriving independent theater scene. Butler taught English at the Woodward School and Phillips Exeter and translated his passion for film into drama. He managed to get three plays produced in Portsmouth, but he couldn’t find traction outside of that town.
Which brought him in 2010 to narrative prose—which wasn’t a new passion, entirely. He had already written two complete novels, neither of which had found a publisher. His next idea was a girl’s coming-of-age story set during the Depression, and he entered Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA program for help in writing that.
“But you don’t give a damn about that story,” said novelist Diane Les Becquets (“Season of Ice”), who was then director of the SNHU program. “How about a story you care about?”
Butler blinked and realized that Les Becquets was right, that this story really wasn’t close to his heart. On the spot he came up with a different idea, one for a story that had something to do, in fact, with damnation.
“At age 39, I had gone back to the Catholic Church,” Butler said. “I was raised Catholic and had pretty much given up on it—drinking too much, smoking too much, and living a life that only had a material dimension. Then, when I had what felt to me like an awakening, all my friends thought I had lost my marbles.”
So too in “Holy Fool,” the novel that Butler described in rudimentary form that day, but with the stakes raised higher. In it George St. Hilaire, a wealthy and ruthless business magnate, wakes up after a car accident resolved to become a priest and give his fortune to the church.
George’s randy, straying wife disapproves, of course, and thinks George has lost his marbles. When this holy fool disappears, she enlists the help of a randy, straying priest to find her husband and restore him to his previous state of sin.
“Well, you wouldn’t know that this extravagant comedy was written by a devout Catholic,” said Richard Adams Carey, assistant director of the SNHU MFA program and one of Butler’s mentors. “I didn’t guess that myself as Ken was writing it, such was his affection and empathy for all his characters, saints and sinners alike. The book is lusty and irreverent and—I guess you could say—non-judgmental. But all the way through you have this underlying heartbeat of warm spirituality.”
In the end, quite simply, it’s a story about a man’s love affair with God, and what happens because of it. But it’s no coincidence that the novel—published by the TouchPoint Press—also harks back to another sort of love affair, that its episodes have a certain snappy cinematic verve to them.
Would “Holy Fool” make a good movie?
“Oh, for sure,” laughed Carey. “I’d buy a ticket to that.”