Allen Tate saw it coming. It was 1965, and one of the late poet's brightest students, a young Washingtonian, was determined to be both a writer and a Catholic priest. So Tate inscribed a book "to James Carroll, with best wishes for his two vocations."

"But then after he wrote that," Carroll remembers, "he looked up at me and said, 'You know, you can't have both of them.' "

Not at once, anyway: He left the priesthood in 1974 to become a best-selling author. Yet both callings still contend in this boyish figure with the smiling pink face and generous Celtic sprinkle of freckles who opens his Beacon Hill door on a tangle of paradoxes:

An impassioned antiwar protester whose father, an Air Force general, was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. A social-reform firebrand whose books have made him rich. A profoundly moral writer who worries that he is not respectable enough. A man who believes that arms spending has made America "a garrison state," that "we are the new Krupps," but has written his new spy novel, "Family Trade," to "pay tribute to my father and the privilege it was to grow up in his family."

He defies categories, this 39-year-old who had to break with father and Fathers to find himself. But then, that's his point: to wrestle with the definitions forced on one by circumstance and blood, "to resist and embrace them," Carroll says. "It sums up not only what I write about, but my life up to now. You don't live in the mainstream of American culture and have narrower definitions than I had . . . But the irony, of course, is that it worked the way it does for a ballet dancer. If you work for Martha Graham, you embrace the most rigorous set of disciplines in the world. But you do it for the sake of freedom, so that some day you can really let go on stage and dance!"

Dance he has: "Madonna Red" (1976) is a Washington thriller with a difference, incorporating a Catholic priest who is a conscience-sick Vietnam veteran, a female IRA assassin and a crisis over the role of women in the church. "Mortal Friends" (1978) follows an Irish immigrant who climbs into respectability by sinking into sin, from a Tipperary rebellion in the '20s to venal politics and gory clan wars in contemporary Boston. "Fault Lines" (1980) portrays a family's brutally manipulative custody fight against a backdrop of war protest. And "Family Trade" ricochets across four decades as Jake McKay, a Georgetown University freshman groping to know himself, sees his father's CIA career ruined when Jake's British uncle defects to the Soviets and begins a 20-year quest to the heart of the family shame. A flashback to World War II Berlin provides a tentative answer before the present-day action reveals a moral truth transcending national borders.

Local boy makes good: Earnings on the first three books ran to seven figures; and the new novel, a Book-of-the-Month-Club main selection, has just broken the slump in reprint sales, drawing a million dollars from New American Library. Which makes possible life here in the sumptuous cobblestone calm of Beacon Hill's row houses, where Carroll cloisters his complexities in four stories of grim Brahmin brick.

In the sun-dappled kitchen, Carroll and his wife, novelist Alexandra Marshall, are scuttling up lunch, pausing to tend their children, Elizabeth, 2, and month-old Patrick, stepping over Marshall's two aging tomcats ("the bane of my existence," Carroll mutters), and discussing the summer vacation at their house in Maine. In these connubial tableaux, Carroll, in ruddy trim from running and tennis, looks like a blissfully secular and collegiate Bostonian.

But follow him up to his dormered study ("This is where the Irish maid used to live, one of those Bridgets"), where a few seminarian mementos interrupt the bare walls, where he writes in longhand on a small plain table, and the sense of religious rigor returns. Not that Carroll is a conventional proselytizer. "If any business treated its middle management the way the church does its priests," he once said, "it would go out of business tomorrow."

But he has made a ministry of fiction, in which the terrible determinism of heritage becomes a genetic original sin, the most vicious transgressions are treated with confessional compassion and narration is tantamount to absolution. "It's true," he says quietly, "the word, the speaking of the word is the act of imagination, the healing faculty in human beings. And the telling of the story is an act of salvation. Historically, it's what made Israel special. The Koran is a series of admonitions and proverbs. But the Hebrew scriptures are a series of stories with a beginning, middle and end. That's not just an accident of culture, but a theological insight into the structure of the human mind, which is consoled and healed by narrative."

The Sins of the Father

That means portraying characters "in their human fullness. In Martin Luther's phrase, they are both justified and sinners. That's an essentially ironic point of view," and it requires conjuring up the full gestalt of evil, which he sees unfolding in the John Hinckley trial. "It's rare for a family to be exposed in public as implicated in the sin of the member. It's very moving, and it's a very Catholic thing: not just the sins of the father, but the strength of the father."

It's a subject on which Carroll is something of an expert. "One of my great resources as a writer is the fact that in my family, a lot of the conflicts of our time seem to have had a special impact. It's a resource--but also a source of special pain."

His parents "broke out of the Irish ghetto" in Chicago and moved to Alexandria, where Carroll and his four brothers grew up. After grade school, he attended St. Anselm's near Catholic University. Always expecting that his family would be transferred, he had "no sense of place," and in the new novel, "one of the things I'm writing about is the feeling of being a kid in Washington, and one of those feelings is of not belonging."

No sense of heritage, either. Carroll writes in "Family Trade" that "Irishmen, even assimilated ones, were never more than an inch away from their feelings of inferiority" and "within an inch also of their resentment." But as a child, "the Irish thing was not dominant in me"; and in the homogeneity of government service, "the Catholics you knew were not ethnically identified." Still, he felt so inferior to children of the old Alexandria families that he became enamored of the Confederacy. There is a scene in "Family Trade" in which the young Jake, whose mother is British, is rebuked for hanging out the Union Jack on the Queen's birthday and sent home from school. "For me," says Carroll, "it was the Stars and Bars on Robert E. Lee's birthday. I got sent home and paddled and all that."

He enrolled at Georgetown, was named outstanding cadet in his Air Force ROTC unit, and got constant questions about the family espionage trade. "What happens to Jake in this novel is what I fantasized happening at the time." All fantasy, however: Although there was an ominous red telephone in the house, "my old man might as well have sold shoes for a living--it was that dramatic." A mediocre student, "kind of an unhappy kid, just normal adolescent stuff, panicked about what I was going to do with my life," he finally discerned "this thing about being a priest, which scared me, made me nervous and insecure.

"There were a lot of things about the priesthood that appealed to me, but there were a lot of things that drove me nuts. Like celibacy--I liked the whole dating scene and all that. But I resolved all that by embracing it, and entered the seminary the next year." He chose the liberal, campus-oriented Paulists, where "I learned to think and my values were radically re-examined."

By the late '60s, his father had become DIA head and Carroll had become a devout leftist. He had been harassed by Nazis at a Lincoln Memorial vigil for the Civil Rights Act and marched on the Pentagon, where "I knew very well which window up there was my old man's office." His forehead knots into deep familiar furrows at the agonizing ambivalence. "Because of my father, I couldn't simply assume that Robert McNamara and the generals were monsters. My father's sense of integrity and justice was enormous." Still, he was arrested several times, knowing his father would be "horrified," too self-conscious to miss the Oedipal overtones: In fact, "with a sort of Freudian efficiency, my first arrest came at an Air Force base."

The Troublesome Chaplain

In April 1969, at 26, he said in his first mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help at Bolling Air Force Base: "The privileged moments in a man's life are those that burst upon him with a kind of energy and significance that allow him to see in a new and clear way who he is . . . " It would prove prophetic.

He became chaplain at Boston University, where "he was always very, very critical," says Ed Guinan, a fellow seminarian who founded the Community for Creative Nonviolence, "and it got him in a lot of trouble." Boston's Archbishop Humberto Medeiros disapproved of "the whole style of my priesthood," says Carroll, "and I was always pressing him to make a statement on the war." It became "particularly painful" when Carroll defended a nun accused of conducting a Eucharist. "I don't believe in people who are not ordained saying mass, but there was the larger issue of the injustice of a system that discriminates against women." A similar incident appears in "Madonna Red."

All along, his ministry had been so intertwined with war protest that as America withdrew from Vietnam, he felt "a strong intuition" that he would be leaving the cloth. In 1974, he made the formal request. "It was like a dam broke, and I discovered myself as a writer." The dam had been straining since the early '60s. In the seminary, he wrote confessional poetry and a novel; in the '70s he labored over his columns and sermons and became a "completely enraptured" theatergoer. After seeing a play, "I'd have this ache in myself--feeling that I could do that. One day I told that to a fellow priest, and he said, 'Well do it!' " The result was "Oh Farrell, Oh Family!" about the conflicts among a policeman and his two sons. It was showcased in New York and earned him a residency at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., where he waited to be laicized.

Another play about the IRA followed, as did "Madonna Red," which "was like stepping into a pair of shoes that were already broken in," since it blended church controversy, Vietnam and "a fantasy I used to have as a priest--that I would turn around to the congregation and someone was going to shoot me." His parents were disappointed with the career choice, but "the irony was that leaving the priesthood was my step into the mainstream, the only way I was gonna become your basic, middle-class American." Not quite: With the $7,000 he got for "Madonna Red," he moved to South Boston (his father was "just disgusted"), looking for a subject to match his "rediscovery of my roots, when I became self-conscious about being Irish."

By then Boston was seething with unrest over school desegregation. He volunteered as a busing monitor, and on the first day found himself lying on the floor of a bus with a couple of dozen young blacks ("we were afraid of getting shot") driving at 60 miles per hour through the narrow streets into Southie. "I've never been so scared in my life," says Carroll, who determined to write a novel that would explain "how the Irish got to be so culturally insecure and threatened. I was opposed to racism, but I was also sympathetic. And I was irked with people who were self-righteous about Irish meathead racists." The book became "Mortal Friends."

While he was working out that story, Carroll met Marshall, who had been on her own vagabond quest for identity. After sampling various arts, including dance under Martha Graham ("At 8 o'clock in the morning. She used to poke us with a stick!"), she settled on writing and became a university migrant, ending up in Boston. She and Carroll shared the same agent--Don Cutler, an Episcopal priest ("it blew my mind when I found out," Carroll says)--who one day suggested that his two neighboring clients should meet.

A Literary Marriage

Marshall, author of three novels including "Gus in Bronze," just wanted to see another writer. "But I, on the other hand," says Carroll with a smirk, "was definitely interested in a romantic relationship." The first phone call stretched to hours, and a few weeks later Marshall proposed. "He was sort of negotiating for living together," she says while breast-feeding Patrick at the dining-room table. "But I'd lived with enough guys. A few weeks later, we decided to get married."

They say they have avoided the tensions notorious in literary couples. "It's a source of mutual support," says Carroll. "I have a lot more readers and more money, but for both of us the primary issue is the success of each book itself."

Popularity has not been a problem: "Madonna Red" was purchased by Robert Redford's Wildwood Enterprises. "Mortal Friends" rode for 11 weeks on The New York Times' best-seller list and was bought by Book-of-the-Month Club ($200,000), Dell ($900,000) and MGM. Carroll adjusted easily to the deluge of cash--"The funny thing is, I've always been rich," by which he means fortunate. "I've been just so lucky every time I turn around." So have his friends: When a fellow ex-priest died recently, Carroll paid for the funeral and set up a fund for the widow.

But there are other anxieties. Although Carroll says "I have a popular imagination innately, not a literary imagination," he was still uneasy that "Mortal Friends" could be considered as pop fiction of the John Jakes species. "I have ambitions for myself as an artist," he says, and "Fault Lines" was "an obvious effort to demonstrate to my public, my publisher and myself that I was not going to be locked into a formula." It was not a huge popular success, but Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times said Carroll had turned "what might have been domestic melodrama into a novel of interesting depth and subtlety." He felt free to return, cautiously, to thrillers.

"I would like to be treated as somebody who's worthy of the company presided over by Graham Greene." But "it's dangerous," he says, "to set for yourself the ambition of writing at the top end of what is basically a schlock genre." Someday he hopes to be "reviewed in journals as well as newspapers," even to write "a book that will transcend its own time and place."

He often feels "rebuked" by the work of more literary writers. "To read a book by John Updike or Robert Stone or Tim O'Brien, a book that's instructive and inspiring and accomplishes things that I couldn't even begin to approach with the language . . . " The thought ebbs into mute admiration. "But then, even if you're Updike or Stone, still you're not Borges. And if you're Borges, you're not Faulkner. And if you're Faulkner, you're still not Shakespeare."

The notion comforts and Carroll, who lost himself to find himself, a father now with a sense of place, touches his fingertips together. "I guess what makes you happy is to do your work as well as you can . . . and to love your people."