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Touch by Elmore Leonard (Arbor House: $17.95; 245 pp.)

August 30, 1987| Philip C. Rule | Rule SJ taught English at the University of Detroit for 12 years and is now teaching at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. and

"Touch" is a classy mystery. It has guns, sex, con artists, intrigue, and, what one has come to expect in an Elmore Leonard novel, crackling dialogue gleaned from the stuff of life. But it has more than mystery. It's about "mystical things," as Leonard puts it in his introduction.

Written in 1977, it sat for almost 10 years on the desks of various editors and publishers. One rejection slip explained that "it is simply that the subject, no matter how well written it is, seems altogether mystifying indeed." Leonard explains, "I had a good time writing 'Touch,' imagining mystical things happening to an ordinary person in a contemporary setting." But he continues, "it shouldn't be mystifying unless you look for symbols, hidden meanings."

The ordinary person is Brother Juvenal (a.k.a. Charlie Lawson) a 33-year-old ex-seminarian who works as a counselor in an alcoholic rehabilitation center in downtown Detroit, across the highway from the Stroh's brewery. Mystical things have been happening to Juvenal about once a month for the last two years, beginning down in Brazil where he was working as a missionary. It seems he "receives" in his body the stigmata (an appearance of the five wounds of Jesus) and can cure people by the laying on of hands--i.e. he has the touch.

The first occurrence of his touch in Detroit takes place in the home of Elwin and Virginia Worrel. In a drunken rage, Elwin slugs his wife, who has been blind for 15 years. Juvenal arrives from the alcoholic center, and after calming down Elwin, goes in the living room to talk to Virginia. Also present on this occasion is Bill Hill, an old friend who is a con artist and salesman who has switched from religion to RVs. Neither Bill nor Elwin saw Juvenal touch Virginia, but she can see, and there is blood on her face but no cuts, only bruises. Was it Elwin's punch or Juvenal's touch that did the trick?

Something strange is going on, and Bill, an old hand at fundamentalism and faith healing, smells a chance to make a killing. Since Juvenal is shrouded in mystery and seemingly protected from the public by the staff at the center, Bill enlists the aid of his old friend Lynn Marie Faulkner, a former teen-age baton twirler for Bill's Uni-Faith church and now a publicist for a rock music recording company. Lynn meets Juvenal and promptly falls in love with him.

But someone else is interested in Juvenal and his wonder-working. August Murray, founder of Outrage (Organization Unifying Traditional Rites as God Expects), sees him as a sign from God, confirming his right-wing traditionalist movement and wants to enlist him in the cause of orthodoxy.

Operating on his own, Bill Hill arranges an interview on a TV talk show hosted by Howard Hart, a composite of all the nasty, vulgar, egomaniacal local personalities who ever sat in front of the camera--cheap hairpiece, capped teeth, silk suits, and vitriolic but uninformed gibes included. So Bill sees Juvenal as a way to make some money; August sees him as a way to win followers, and Lynn simply wants to get him into bed.

Juvenal's stigmata occur four times, and he cures four people. Three of these are debatable, i.e. the cures might just as easily be attributed to natural causes. The final manifestation of the touch takes place on the Howard Hart Show before a live audience and thousands of viewers. The whole sequence in the studio is high comedy.

Leonard's real concern, however, is imagining what it would be like to have such a gift whether it comes from God or natural causes (auto-suggestion, hysteria, etc.). How does it affect one's life? Does one have to be holy to receive it if it is from God? Is it compatible with having a drink now and then, having sex, and living an otherwise normal life? Juvenal loves people. He is a gifted counselor. He prays, but he is not a mystic. He does in fact take a drink and have sex. Wouldn't someone like this lie awake at night asking, "Why me?"

Fiction--other than science fiction--is usually, and advisably, about the probable and the normal. Leonard's genius in treating such an unusual not to say abnormal phenomenon lies in his ability to create an ambiance and atmosphere of actuality. The novel oozes with the feel of Detroit. Things happen in the parts of town where you would expect them to happen, and the events of the 1970s are echoed clearly and accurately. Best of all is the dialogue. The excitement and energy of a Leonard novel is generated by the way people talk. Perhaps this is why his Westerns have become film classics, while his mysteries, "The Big Bounce" and "Stick," have been film flops. In the former, the dialogue was allowed to shape the characters. In the latter, dialogue was smothered in star personalities.

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