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Patience of a Saint by Andrew M. Greeley (Warner: $18.95; 464 pp.)

February 15, 1987|Wendy Leopold | Leopold is a researcher in The Times' Chicago bureau

Andrew Greeley--the sociologist and priest whose steamy novels combine religion, sex and a redeeming message--has journeyed once again into religious romance, a genre he has raised to best-seller proportions but for which he has yet to garner literary acclaim.

"Patience of a Saint," his seventh novel in as many years, won't win it for him. Its well-turned plot is undermined by excessive sermonizing and uninspired, often embarrassing prose.

Just to make sure that no reader misses after 441 pages the oft-repeated sex-as-sacrament message, Greeley explains in a "theological note" that his book is about "falling in love again with your spouse" as a "correlative" to falling in love with God.

"Patience of a Saint" is the tale of Red Kane, a prize-winning journalist who at 53 is about to give up on fulfilling the promise of his early career and his hopes for building good family relationships. About to give up, that is, until "the Lord God . . . hit him over the head with a cosmic baseball bat."

The encounter with the "cosmic bat" (a metaphor appearing so often it comes to seem, as Greeley might put it, a celestial jackhammer) is, in fact, a religious experience precipitated by a near-miss with a speeding car driven by goons working for Harvard Gunther, an evil businessman whose crimes Red has exposed.

As a result of his being bopped by the cosmic baseball bat, Red tightens his case against Gunther, completes his novel and, most important, begins repairing his 20-year marriage and his relationship with his children.

But acceptance of a modern-day saint guided by none other than "the Transcendental Designated Hitter" doesn't come easily. Marxist priests more interested in Latin American politics than their parishioners and psychiatrists more comfortable diagnosing schizophrenia than exploring religious experiences stand in his way. So do relatives and co-workers who find Red's sudden sanctity difficult to live with and up to.

Only Monsignor Blackie Ryan accepts Red's mystic experience at face value, citing research that suggests one-third of the population may have such experiences (research Greeley himself did, we learn in the "sociological note" that follows his "theological note"). When Blackie tells Red "sexual love often occasions" such experiences and Red replies "God kind of slides into bed with you?," the reader is left to wonder whether He does so in or out of uniform.

And that's the trouble with this novel. Greeley does a decent job of developing his Chicago newspaperman protagonist, and his plot takes some interesting twists and turns. But writing that veers between the heady and the flat often unwittingly becomes comic and undercuts his plea for marital passion and love.

Lines like "He turned her into a wet, twisting mass of desperately aroused, womanly need" seem lifted off the pages of a Harlequin romance.

Worse still is the prose of the sex-as-sacrament message: "As he held her poised precariously above the abyss of rapture, another monumental wave of love for Eileen washed through Red's spirit . . . Perhaps--the thought rushed through his head--that's the way the One with the baseball bat feels about me."

And worst of all are suggestions that "perhaps heaven (is) eternal foreplay" or that "God's a chocolate malted milk with two squirts of whipped cream" or--in a line that no locker-room braggart could top--that "God is a tender, passionate lover, like me at my very rare best."

Greeley's saga of a modern-day Job is too long, repetitious and poorly written. It is in the end, at the book's conclusion, the weary reader who demonstrates the patience of a saint.

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