1929 Near Miss: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver

Plot Summary:

A doctor and a defrocked priest with a questionable past work together to aid the down and out and those suffering from psychiatric problems. They utilize the priest’s incredible empathy and understanding of the broken human condition, and the doctor’s authority and connections, working to improve the community and the lives of the patients coming out of the psychiatric hospital.

My thoughts:

This has been the most difficult book to get my hands on thus far in my Pulitzer project. The University of Texas Library did not have a copy available to check out. I could have used the interlibrary loan system to try to find a copy, but that usually takes a few weeks, and I discovered that the University of Texas did have a copy of Victim and Victor in the Harry Ransom Collection. This required my visiting the reading room at the Harry Ransom Library and reading the material on site, which inhibited my usual method of reading while sprawled on a sofa any time I felt like it, day or night. But the librarians at the Ransom Library were wonderful, and the copy of the book was in great condition (and signed by the author). Thus, I was able to read Victim and Victor without waiting for an interlibrary loan. And I’m so glad I was able to, because this book was fantastic.

The book is narrated by Claude, a doctor, as he tells the story of Father Michael through the priests own journals and letters, and through Claude’s personal experience and notes from their time working together. Michael is a defrocked priest, who spends some time in prison, and first meets Claude when the doctor helps treat him in a psychiatric hospital. After Michael helps Claude find a patient who has run off and stop him from committing suicide, Claude begins to enlist the help of Michael in treating his psychiatric patients, while attempting to treat Michael as well, by helping him get the one thing he desires: to be a priest again.

John R. Oliver was both a priest and a doctor with a specialty in psychiatry, and so he approaches the subjects of religion and psychiatry from an informed and knowledgeable position, and it shows through the work. Michael has an implicit understanding of Claude’s patients that only comes with great empathy and with a lot of experience in those areas. And the way in which the psychiatric conditions are described in the book are uncanny, and still hold true based on my own experience working with psychiatric patients in the medical field.

Claude ends up not only working with psychiatric patients, but also, through his friendship with a judge, working to rehabilitate released prisoners, which he does mostly with the help of Michael, who had experienced being released from prison and trying to make sense of the world on the other side of it already. And while the prison conditions described in the book are more physically brutal than is allowed today, the psychological toll that prison takes on people, and the difficulty in finding your feet and getting a job with a prison sentence in your past are problems still faced by released prisoners today.

Perhaps it is because I am close to the populations described in the book through my job that I sympathize so well with it, but I think there’s still a lot of misunderstanding and fear when it comes to those populations today, the same misunderstanding and fear that Claude and Michael work against as they attempt to rehabilitate a variety of patients.

But Victim and Victor is ultimately a religious book. It is the story of a priest and his journey through trials and hardship toward an ultimate revelation and spiritual transcendence. Father Michael, when he is defrocked, loses the one thing he ever truly wanted in life, and the core of the book is his struggle to regain that. Michael approaches the patients and their situations from a religious, instead of a scientific standpoint, and is able to do more for them because of that than Claude is ever able to do for them without Michael’s help.

I have to agree with the 1929 jury. While Scarlet Sister Mary was an interesting look at African-American plantation culture following the abolition of slavery, I found Victim and Victor to be a better-written, more compelling novel, and though both novels dealt with a religious reconciliation, I found Victim and Victor to have a more engaging and cogent religious theme, and one with a more satisfying resolution.

It baffles me that this book has been out of print for so long, and is so difficult to find today. I suppose it is one of those books for which I am the prime audience, and there have been too many people in the past 85 years who have not fallen into that category, but I still think it’s a shame to have such limited access to what I have found to be such a fantastic work.

Favorite passage:

“In here you go through three stages. First, you’re rebellious, vindictive. You spend your time gloating over what you’ll do to get even when you get out. They beat you and cuff you up and curse you, until there is nothing left in your heart except a dull, glowing hate against everything and everybody–against the world outside–against God. Finally, when you’re beaten up and strait-jacketed some more, you’re too broken, too miserable, even to hate.”

Why you should read it:

Dr. John Oliver takes an approach both toward treating psychiatric patients, and helping rehabilitate released prison inmates that is still useful and important today in helping those populations. Additionally, he creates an impelling character study in the figure of the priest, troubled by depression and PTSD, yet working through those in some way by helping others suffering similarly. It’s an altogether fascinating read, if you can manage to find a copy.

Currently reading: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge

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One thought on “1929 Near Miss: Victim and Victor by John R. Oliver

  1. That’s so interesting. I am also reading the Pulitzer Prize Winners from the beginning, just for fun. I have just arrived at Scarlet Sister Mary; I may have to veer off and read Victim and Victor, it sounds very interesting. In fact, if I live long enough, I may have to go back and read the other novels nominated.

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