The Catholic priests who strode through the first half of the 20th century warning against the evils of sex have been banished from the pages of Andrew Greeley's novel. In their place is a priest who uses the confessional to reassure a woman afraid of one more failure at love that "Sexual attraction is designed to overcome those fears. It's God's way of helping us cancel out unfortunate histories."
Anne Reilly, owner of the unfortunate histories, doesn't believe that, and why should she? In the Catholic Church of her youth, sexual feelings were to be repressed, marriage was an unbreakable contract, and a priest could counsel that "If a husband beats his wife, nine times out of ten she deserves it."
Anne knows that sin is punished by Divine Justice, and if she were to doubt it, there is the painting by that name hanging in her art gallery on Chicago's fashionable North Side. A mad painting by a mad priest, it shows a young naked woman fleeing the devil. "One demon has caught her breast in his claw and the others are closing in on her. I suppose he's saying that you don't make narrow escapes from God's implacable justice," says Anne to the cardinal archbishop of Chicago, who replies, "A proper portrait of God's justice would picture him dragging all of us into heaven by the skin of our teeth."
It is God versus the Devil, the old Catholicism versus the new, life versus death. No small themes, these, but in "Angels of September" they are merely the pillars supporting a theological soap opera.
As in all good soap operas, there is a mystery: Who started the terrible school fire that, in the early 1940s, took the lives of almost 100 young children? After the fire, the parish priest, painter of "Divine Justice," went mad, and when Anne, one of the children who escaped, exhibits his paintings, strange things begin to happen. There are fires and visitations by demons, mysterious phone calls and ghostly footsteps. Has the Devil come to claim his own or is Anne Reilly nutty as a fruitcake?
Andrew Greeley has made his reputation on plot, not prose, and on the delicious shock of knowing it is a priest who has created among his characters a man of the cloth who announces, "By Her own admission, God is horny," and writes things like, "His body was lean, hard, and disciplined, like that of a paratroop general who prided himself on his ability to jump with his men. And she was a prisoner of the paratrooper, willing to be ravished, indeed more than willing, but not given all that much choice in the matter," which gives an example of both the titillation and the style of the writing.
Greeley has chosen to make his heroine a beautiful and sexy woman in her fifties, and if he can't resist describing her in ways that make her sound like an entree on a particularly effusive menu ("a black Irish beauty, with soft pale buttermilk skin quick to blush and impossible to tan, dark hair, flashing eyes, a firm and supple figure, and a rich musical voice in which one could hear the laughter of the dancing streams and the Little People"), he also acknowledges that at that age, beauty must pay the price of "Bifocal contacts . . . periodontal work and reconstruction for my rotten Irish teeth, the Nautilus and diet for my figure, cosmetics of every imaginable variety, Vogue and Bazaar every month for the most recent discoveries, Inderal for what the doctor calls a benign heart arythmia; all the protections against time that human ingenuity had devised and I'm still growing old."
At the heart of the book is a love story between two older people who had come together briefly in their youth and then separated. It might have given "Angels of September" more depth, since Greeley is aware that love that comes late may be received with gratitude but also poses problems as the lovers try to merge families, careers and habits.
But the love story is done in by demons. Unfortunately, about midway through the book the demons grow boring, guests with only one story to tell rattle on and on and on, and the book, which was taut and exciting in the beginning, rambles loosely to its not-quite conclusion.