the miracle

by John L'Heureux

(Atlantic Monthly Press, 221 pages, $24)

The author wisely names his central character Father LeBlanc, and a blank he is. This young Catholic priest appears as a wraith, an allegorical figure in a medieval miracle play set in the 1970s. LeBlanc symbolizes a current crisis in the Church: How does a lusty young man contend with enforced celibacy?

LeBlanc survives well enough in the congenial surroundings of South Boston, but his unorthodox views finally exile him to a backwater parish in New Hampshire, where his inner psyche sinks into a festering swamp of self-pity and self-doubt. He visualizes salvation when he participates in what he believes to be a miracle--a girl rising from the dead. If he had engineered it, he has gained a leg up on sainthood. Unfortunately, other eyewitnesses recall the event with considerably less awe.

L'Heureux populates his book with stock characters from Central Casting who deliver their speeches precisely on cue: the unattainable woman, the earth mother, the biker freak, the tippling old doc, the wild but lovable nymphet. The devil gets all the lines. He is old Father Moriarty, dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, an ailment the author conveniently borrows from his 1991 novel, An Honorable Profession. Moriarty's verbal lasers deflate all pretensions, including his own.

The author writes in an easy, rolling narrative style happily devoid of the tangled metaphors some critics adore. Eventually, L'Heureux allows LeBlanc to struggle free of his dark night of the soul and resurrect himself into comparative sunshine. Yet the reader wonders, will LeBlanc soon discover himself on the shrink's couch and find it as futile as the confession booth? Art Chenoweth