By Lloyd Rose
Saturday, November 7, 2009
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 272 pp. $25.95
"There were omens from the beginning," Anne Rice's "Angel Time" begins. It's a nice first sentence for a mystical thriller: forebodings of doom, promises of supernatural happenings to come. The first-person narrator is the melodramatically named Toby O'Dare, a preternaturally gifted hit man with a black hole where his soul should be. Yet Toby isn't sadistic or pathological. The blackness is despair. "Who I am was nobody," he tells us, on the way to his next kill.
Toby lost his moral self years ago in New Orleans (naturally, this being Anne Rice). He was corrupted not by vampires but by ordinary horror: a suffering family that he, only an adolescent, couldn't save. Raised a Catholic, he abandoned his faith and discovered a talent for murder. As the book opens, he's cut back to a single client, someone he calls The Right Man, who tells him, "Kid, you're working for The Good Guys." Toby idly speculates that this might mean the FBI or Interpol and that, just possibly, what he's doing might be "meaningful."
But he doesn't really believe this. "I committed murder. I did it for a living. I did it for no reason at all except to go on living. I killed people. I killed them without warning and without an explanation as to why I did it. The Right Man might have been one of The Good Guys, but I certainly was not." Shortly after this confession, armed with a gun, two syringes and a thin, sharp piece of plastic, he enters a hotel and disposes of a guest, probably a German Swiss banker, but Toby doesn't really know and certainly doesn't care.
At this point, an angel shows up.
Turns out that first sentence wasn't ominous after all. This is a book of good omens, and Toby is on his way to salvation.
The argument can be made -- Rice herself has made it -- that almost all of Rice's previous work was about souls lost in evil and looking for a way out. That sense of desperation was what made her books more than just soft-porn vampiric fun. (In the movie of "Interview With the Vampire," Brad Pitt was so glum with guilt that he almost ruined any fun there was.) She dared to use pulp fiction to treat the most serious matters, even the death of her young daughter. Her fictional world was perfectly realized in the overripe, decaying beauty of New Orleans with its sensuality of rot. The skull beneath the skin in Rice's books isn't a matter of horror-movie scares, it's a true memento mori, a warning.
Toby O'Dare heeds the warning and finds his way out. But even when he's still a killer, he's less interesting than Rice's previous hero-villains -- depressed and dry, with just the occasional flicker of pleasure, and this derived only from non-fleshly beauty such as flowers and architecture and playing the lute. Once redeemed, Toby succumbs to a problem as old as "Paradise Lost," in which Milton's Satan nearly steals the epic from Jesus. However preferable they are to deal with in life, virtuous characters in literature tend toward the dull.
It doesn't help "Angel Time" that Toby plunges into what seems to be a completely different novel when he's sent to 13th-century Norwich to help the city's Jewish community, victims of blood libel. He meets good Christians and bad Christians, a beautiful Jewish woman and her religiously rigid father, a monk with a scandalous past. There is a great deal of worthy conversation about the necessity of fellowship between Jews and Christians. Almost everyone is well-meaning and trying hard to do his or her best. The earnestness is deadly. By the time Toby accomplishes his mission, the life has drained out of the book.
Save your soul, damn your art. It's impossible to doubt the sincerity of Rice's religious feelings or to ignore a new authorial serenity. But it's the grind of conflict that energizes a good novel. "Angel Time" isn't a story so much as a message: Fear not, even the most depraved human being is loved by God and can find peace and purpose in accepting Him. Thus endeth the lesson.
Rose is a former chief theater critic for The Post.