Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2002

Calling Bernardette’s Bluff, by Dale McGowan

reviewed by Andy Armitage

Having read this wonderful romp of a novel, I wonder whether its author still has a job. For Dale McGowan is not reticent about his sources of inspiration – even if he does talk about them by denying them.

In a story that twinkles with mischievous dialogue, McGowan – who describes himself as being (by “the most breathtaking coincidence”), like the protagonist, “a secular humanist professor at a small Catholic women’s college in Minnesota – tells of Jack Kassel, who is the proverbial square peg of disbelief in the round hole of superstition.

He teaches at St Bernardette’s. But it’s nothing like St Catherine’s, where McGowan lectures. The very suggestion, he says, is “ridiculous and bizarre”.

After treating us to a number of such “coincidences” – for instance, how A is quite simply not an inspiration for B, and how the fact that C and D have a passing resemblance is, well, quite by chance – we get to the story.

McGowan majors in his dialogue – in places so dry that it crackles. It is typically American, not unlike the humour we’ve heard on a dozen American sitcoms – but that is not a put-down. Dialogue is funny because it works, and it works best when characters are forced together into the roles of unlikely bedfellows.

Kassel’s old college chum Scott joins St Bernardette’s as the campus priest; Kassel is instrumental in setting up a secular humanist club on campus; and the college is eventually turned into a veritable Mecca (so let’s mix our belief systems!) for pilgrims after a Marian vision is allegedly witnessed there.

Interspersed with the humour are passages of philosophy, such as when Jack Kassel is talking to his young son, whose estranged mother, under the influence of her own mother, has sent him to a Lutheran school, and he begins to ask awkward questions about where we come from (and I don’t mean that in the “Mummy’s tummy” sense); philosophy again when he’s talking to one of the students who are part of the humanist campus club, and preaching tolerance in a way few evangelical atheists find possible.

We find ourselves hoping that Jack will wipe the floor with the Christians, but he doesn’t: there is in his heart an accommodation of them; he is a very human character, and one I suspect that is not a million miles away from his creator.

I recommend this as a thoroughly good read. While provoking thought and challenging humanists’ own ideas sometimes, it is also very funny. And humour can be an excellent vehicle for the least humorous of notions.

But where was the proofreader? As well as numerous missed hyphens, why was every initial apostrophe an opening quote mark instead – the shape of a 6 instead of a 9?

At the time of writing, I don’t know whether it’s available in UK bookshops. McGowan tells me it’s most quickly to be bought on the website If you order through Amazon and do it through the GALHA website, you’ll raise money for the group.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-09-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :