A CHILD ACROSS THE SKY

By Jonathan Carroll

Doubleday. 215 pp. $18.95

WITH FOUR idiosyncratic novels under his belt (The Land of Laughs, Voice of Our Shadow, Bones of the Moon and Sleeping in Flame), Vienna-based Jonathan Carroll might appear to be ready for the big break, for something more than pleasant notices and some good undercurrents in the talk of the trade. A Child Across the Sky, his latest book, just could be the novel that will stir things up for him and cut loose the banners. It's as fine an American romance as Hawthorne might have predicted for us, now that our cities and our hearts have aged enough for ivy to entwine them so that they often appear to lie in the ruins the master required for the genre.

Make no mistake. This is a genre novel. And in a time of crossovers, when mystery writers try to impress us with their grasp of psychology and spy writers turn their plots toward the revelation of metaphysics, it's important to notice this. Jonathan Carroll creates contemporary romances in the literary tradition of Hawthorne and other masters of the form. And he does it better than anyone since John Collier, our last great practitioner of fiction that blurs reality and fantasy into an odd but recognizable version of everyday life.

Some Carroll fans -- and they are growing in number with each book -- may think I'm trying to diminish their guy by attempting to classify him. He's a strange bird and they may not want to do more than to appreciate him. But as in bird watching, identification is a form of celebration. That's what I think we should do with Carroll. Fe~te him, read his books. See him for what he is -- one of our most gifted and intelligent entertainers. As a novelist, I thank the gods that he's chosen the best art I think we have -- the novel -- to make his vision large.

A Child Across the Sky is a Faust story, in which horror film maker Philip Strayhorn pushes the limits of the slasher film far beyond the ordinary. Playing his own anti-hero, a silver-masked, dainty-fingered maniac named Bloodstone, Strayhorn strikes out on a path that leads toward a confrontation with forces far beyond his control. His films inspire mass murders around the country, his closest companions die in terrible accidents or come down with cancer. Infanticide and child abuse sound the key in which his movies play. And then one afternoon he shoots his beloved dog and blows his own brains out. His former partner, an Oscar-winning director named Weber Gregston, receives a video to be played at Strayhorn's wake. Its contents are horrific yet miraculous, but whether a miracle on the devil's side or God's is something that Gregston will only discover by making a personal inquest into his old friend's demise.

Strayhorn, it turns out, has been visited by an extraordinary creature in the guise of a beautiful little blonde girl who calls herself Pinsleepe. Announcing herself as an angel, she appears to be a strange double of Strayhorn's pregnant girlfriend, Sasha, as well as an avatar of Strayhorn's imaginary playmate from childhood. Pinsleepe has magical powers, can alter manuscripts with the touch of a finger -- and has a belly as large as a soccer ball since she too is pregnant. What rough beast slouches toward the conclusion of this novel to be born? It would be devilish of a reviewer to give away any more of the plot.

The traditional story of Faust and the devil is a convention Carroll plays like a virtuoso, using the old story to make a fabulous entertainment about the modern world in which questions of art versus life, illusion versus reality, and the nature of good versus evil come under scrutiny. Gregston, the main narrator, is charged by Pinsleepe to complete Strayhorn's last, and unfinished, horror film in such a way as to assuage the wrath of an offended deity. Before his friend's death Gregston had given up filmmaking himself in order to direct a repertory company in which all the actors are dying of cancer. Existential art is paramount for him. "From my experience with this group," he says at one point to the pregnant Sasha (who herself has, since Strayhorn's death, been stricken with cancer), "art at its best only raises life to an all-encompassing now. It forces us to forget time, or death, or anything and just allows us to live now . . ."

As Gregston races to complete Strayhorn's last movie, events far beyond the ordinary conspire to test his existential vision, such as videos from beyond the grave and doppelgangers out of the past and future. Some readers may be tested too by the fact that now and then the deceased Strayhorn himself takes over the narration, filling in with some facts about his past existence from his vantage point in the world of the dead. But then such things come with the territory of romance, this 19th-century form that Jonathan Carroll has brought to life so brilliantly. He is a first-rate entertainer, producing the kind of engaging genre fiction that makes Stephen King seem like a creator of comic books for adults, although it's not really King but Vonnegut who comes to mind after reading Carroll. This is fantasy for those who hate fantasy -- and for those who love it -- they've never had it so good.

Alan Cheuse is book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered." His new novel, "The Light Possessed," will be published this fall.