- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

John L'Heureux has built a long and estimable career writing fiction that is taut, graceful and playful in the most elegant sense of the word. In his 16 novels, Mr. L'Heureux, a former Jesuit priest, has only rarely fashioned material that might be deemed explicitly Catholic. His wide assortment of protagonists academics, immigrants, social climbers, psychiatrists, working stiffs confront the big questions about life, death and the unknown, but rarely in religious terms.
In "The Miracle," Mr. L'Heureux departs from this secular worldview, applying his quietly cadenced prose to a story about a young priest who wants to be a saint. The setting is a church, the protagonists men of the cloth, the tone ethereal. At a juncture when the Catholic Church is taking a bona fide public relations beating because of its scandal-weary priesthood, Mr. Heureux's timely and risky attempt to put a human face on religious aspirations, limitations and belief could not be more brave, or, as it turns out, more rewarding.
Father Paul LeBlanc is a young, fit and handsome priest who also is something of a radical. Born in Boston and assigned to a parish there, he regales its members with his prowess on a basketball court and his penchant for singing show tunes. He also riles many of them with his activism. "To the parishioners except for ones who have sons and daughters in Vietnam Father LeBlanc is a wild priest but a good one." The time frame is the unsettled '70s when other hot-button issues for the Boston diocese are busing and birth control, and Father LeBlanc navigates these just as perilously.
And he is vulnerable. "He worries about hearing confesssions. He worries about how he says mass. He worries about worrying, which is a sign of vanity." After he goes on a spree of encouraging parishioners to follow their conscience on the matter of birth control, Father Paul's tough superior Monsignor Glynn reassigns the young priest to a parish in New Hampshire, a resort community in which one of his assignments is to take care of Father Tom Moriarty, a priest who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the degenerative muscular affliction known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Paul sees his transfer as a punishment, but he vows to make the best of it and throws himself into his new work, growing increasingly fond of the sarcastic Father Moriarty who faces his awful illness with rage and humor. It is while visiting the ailing clegyman to help clean and feed him that Paul meets Rose, a single mother who is Father Moriarty's housekeeper. She soon develops a crush. In this sensual and restrained novel, her yearnings do not go unnoticed by the young, conflicted priest.
Neverhtheless, Paul has other things on his mind. Though outwardly exuberant and high functioning, alone in the dark he is bedeviled by doubts. He prays, he weeps, he asserts his love of God: "'I want to love you, I want to love you, help me to love you,' but he has this swelling in his chest and in his throat and in his brain and he cannot think, and when the pain passes, he finds he is not saying, 'I want to love you.' He is saying, 'I want you to love me.' He is shocked and embarrassed. 'I want you to love me,' he says again, thinking about it now, not just saying it.'" And then he makes a promise: "'Whatever you want, I'll give it. But love me,' he prays."
As Paul is making his bargain with God, the novel's central drama begins to unfold. Rose's teenage daughter Mandy, who has a long history of drug abuse and other wild behavior is dying of a drug overdose.
Paul is summoned to Rose's apartment where he finds Mandy cold and blue and not breathing. Rose also has frantically called Dr. Forbes, a general practitioner with a drinking problem, who along with the landlord becomes part of the tense, manic scene. When no one can find a pulse and they disperse to wait for the ambulance, Rose locks the door and prays "I want her back, she says. I want her now. Do you hear me?" She then begins her own set of invocations and promises. She prays to the Virgin Mary and vows to never have sex again as long as the girl lives.
After the ambulance arrives, the assembled return to the room and, suddenly, the girl opens her eyes. Everyone gasps, calling her return from what appeared to be death a miracle. Dr. Forbes says it's a miracle, Rose perceives it as a miracle and Paul endorses the same explanation though his perception is marred by his desire to be part of the miracle, to know it, to feel it, to understand it, to make it his miracle. He is just that selfish.
From this point Mr. L'Heureux carries the plot forward in the simplest and most direct way. The characters mull over Mandy's recovery, talk about it incessantly, then get on with their lives. Those affected by what happened are dutifully introspective, and readers learn their thoughts. There is little clutter and few digressions the lyrics of the show tunes Father Le Blanc hums and verses from the Bible are cited sparingly. The natural world is invoked occasionally, but again with little adornment. Only Father Moriarty, stuck in bed, paralyzed and dying, continues to be touched by visions of some kind of transcendent reality.
A calm seems to descend on them all but it does not last. Midway through the novel, Mandy, again abusing drugs, dies in a freakish motorcycle accident. The sudden turn does not come as a shock to the reader, testimony to the carefulness with which Mr. L'Heureux builds his story. Rose appreciates what has come to pass as inevitable, other characters are equally resigned. It is as if the first event, the miracle, was simply too much to bear.
In the end it is Paul's journey that keeps the reader transfixed. His experience of the miracle and the priesthood takes him to the brink of suicide before he backs away and makes a not-so -surprising decision. His is a lovely story, soothing and well told, with many mysteries to ponder and celebrate. This powerful book may be Mr. L'Heureux's finest.
THE MIRACLE
By John L'Heureux
Grove/Atlantic, $24, 221 pages

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