TOUCH By Elmore Leonard Arbor House. 245 pp. $17.95
JUVENAL is a stigmatic. He reads minds. He heals the sick and then bleeds with the five wounds of Jesus. Does he really heal them? He thinks he does. Is he a saint? He's not sure. Probably not. Will his amazing powers get him into trouble in a world in which nothing seems sacred? Is the pope Catholic?
A sometime Franciscan brother, Juvenal (ne' Charlie Lawson) was eased out of the order because he cured too many natives in Brazil. He has taken refuge in a Catholic center for alcoholics where he minds his own business until a rogue's gallery of crooks tries to exploit him.
One is tempted to look again at the name of the author. Is this Elmore "Dutch" Leonard, the author of fabulous scam stories with vivid street dialogue and wry, slightly bent characters, the author of Glitz and Stick and Cat Chaser? You bet your life it is. Then why is he messing around with religion? Bad enough that there were an ex-nun and some liberation theologians in Bandits. Why a putative saint? Has Dutch, to use his own argot, got religion or somethng?
The author's personal religious life is his own business and no one else's. It suffices to say that it would be difficult though not impossible for a man who lacked faith to turn out as delicate and as subtle a work as Touch -- skeptical yet accepting of an open universe in which wondrous events may occur even if they usually don't. More to the point, Leonard knows that there is only one area of human behavior more open to scams than religion, and that is sanctity. So Touch is alive with scams and alive, too, with the usual Dutch treat of kinky dialogue and kinkier characters. The book may be about a saint, but it is quintessential Leonard, a slim volume which provides page for page as much delight to Dutch addicts as any of his other books. Maybe a little more.
The principal scamsters are a crooked fundamentalist minister, a right-wing Catholic layman and a Donahue-like TV interviewer. Aided by a topless dancer whose boy Juvie cured, a reporter hungry for news, a Franciscan priest whose bowels were ruined in the jungle and other assorted Dutch-like characters, the bad guys close in on Juvie. His only ally is a tart- (to be euphemistic) tongued, hip young woman named Lynn who fakes alcoholism to check the miracle worker for the minister, is fascinated by the saint, and then falls in love with the man.
UNLIKE other Dutch heroes, Juvie (the nickname is the young woman's) cannot defend himself with his weapons or his fists. On his side he has only goodness. And we know what that's worth against scamsters, don't we? The final war in heaven between Juvie and Lynn and those who would exploit his powers is pure joy. I won't even give a hint about what happens and you'll never guess till the end.
The love affair between Juvie and Lynn is elegant and touching, the woman of the world who is an innocent and the innocent young man who knows more of the world's evil than she can ever imagine. They love each other with a simple, passionate yet -- one must use the word -- sweet intensity that makes their story the most appealing of all the appealing loves which are to be found in Leonard's books.
The post-Vatican II Catholic atmosphere has the right "feel," something which one could not say about many more self-consciously Catholic writers like Mary Gordon, who either do not know or have forgotten what it was (and is) like inside the Catholic community.
But does Elmore Leonard really believe in miracles? If you pick up the book expecting that in the end he will provide a purely natural explanation for Juvie's powers, you will be greatly disappointed -- and you might have misunderstood the difference between ideology and storytelling. Leonard brings onstage a Jesuit theologian from Detroit University to present the church's traditional suspicion of such phenomena and offer the raw materials of a purely natural explanation. He leaves it to the reader, however, to decide why Juvenal heals and why he bleeds. He also seems to suggest that these are, as the extra-terrestrial says to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, "wrong questions!"
Two final comments: in an introduction (in which he warns against "mystifying" interpretations of the story) Leonard notes wryly that Touch had been accepted and paid for by a publisher (Bantam, though he doesn't say so) which could not find a marketing angle for it and returned the rights to him after two years. Small wonder: the New York best-seller world is ill-equipped to deal with saints and miracles and even religion. I suspect the so-called book-reviewing fraternity will be similarly put off.
They will be as wrong as the decisionmakers at Bantam. With a modest shrug, Leonard ends his introduction by saying that "friends of mine who read a lot think it's my best book." They're right.
Andrew Greeley is a Catholic priest, a novelist and a sociologist who has studied the incidence and prevalence of paranormal experiences. His new book, "Rite of Spring," is about such experiences.