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The Tender Trappist : TEMPTATIONS: By Paul Wilkes (Random House: $20; 252 pp.)

April 18, 1993|Ron Carlson | Carlson's most recent book is "Plan B for the Middle Class," a collection of stories.

These are material days. We are a nation of material men and women in a material world, and our lives, guided as they are by things , seem uniquely devoid of spiritual reach. We worship celebrity, and celebrity (and its worship) is about ambition and envy, and they are cousins of greed, and greed, as everyone knows, has a lot of relatives. The current trinity is the old trinity: money, career and, of course, self.

That overstates the case, but not much, and with this in mind, Paul Wilkes' first novel, "Temptations," comes along as a refreshing, almost curious study of one very modern man's investigation of the spiritual life. This is a century that started with Horatio Alger stories and the happy ending in which a young man got everything he wanted; where there was a will there was a way. And now this novel supposes just the opposite: Only without will is there a way.

Interesting, modern readers say, scratching their chins; very interesting.

The protagonist here, Joseph, is a very successful writer of "lived experience" books and a worldly man whose knowledge of the good life includes every upscale brand name and address in Manhattan. He is an inveterate and skilled journalist whose work has won wide acclaim. His personal life in New York is one of "having it all," until one day in his laundry room when he realizes that the towels at his feet represent four different women who have shared his bed in seven days; this epiphany spurs him out of the city on a tour of monasteries throughout the Northeast. Later, he begins the research on an article, maybe a book, on monastic life, going up to Vermont to the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of New Citeaux.

The novel is that year in Joseph's life; the 12 chapters, one a month, trace his increasing involvement with Trappist life at New Citeaux, the roller coaster of his seduction and repulsion by the extreme ascetic and spiritual demands required for true abnegation. He takes a cottage nearby and begins living a life parallel to that of the monks as he prepares to enter the monastery for a trial period.

His own dormant Catholicism is awakened as he begins his long season of ora et labora , prayer and work, and it becomes a powerful force in his struggles to understand what is being asked of him--and by whom it is being asked. He reads and reads. The great men who have traveled this path before him remind him that pain and sacrifice are necessary in the journey. And at some point early in the book, Joseph crosses the line between reporter in search of a story and a troubled soul in search of itself.

The novelist's challenge in such a story is obvious: How do you convince the reader of the viability and credibility of religious conversion without resorting to magic or melodrama? How do you convincingly depict skepticism? Faith? At first glance, the change the convert undergoes seems a lot like falling in love, except there is no other person, a little Latin, and a lot more reading. Wilkes handles this delicate matter fairly well. It's a thin line--and not always visible--that Joseph walks on his journey.

Accompanying him during this charged period are two people who represent the two poles in his quest. One is the head of the monastery, Father Columban Mellary, a man so spiritual and wise and charismatic in those quiet ways that it seems . . . what? Almost evil? He says to Joseph: "I may be a devil or angel to you. Only you can decide."

His ongoing dialogue with Joseph is the headiest element in the book. Another is Margery Fowler, a woman pretty as an angel who works at Nature's Bountiful Harvest, a health-food store in the village. They collide in the grocery and fall in love. It's a confusing time for Joseph.

On the one hand, Columban is a saintly if imperious mentor advising him to let go of his arrogance, his ambition, his will; he must spend his time in the desert, accept the pain. And on the other, Margery has just arrived with a sumptuous meal. Margery represents, almost too patently, worldly reason and good health; she's almost incredibly loyal, resilient and sensible. There are too many times in fact when she seems more agent of a homily than character in a novel, as we sense Wilkes' ideas ordering his people around.

There's another story woven through "Temptations"--some intrigue at the monastery. There's been a suicide in January and a series of anonymous notes to Joseph the reporter that leads him down a trail of damaged souls: a vitriolic lawyer, an institutionalized young zealot, and the suicide--all men who had worked closely with Father Columban. As this detective theme reappears in the book, it feels like a kind of relief after all the soul-searching Joseph is going through. Nothing like an anonymous letter to quicken the pulse.

But this is Joseph's story. Any secrets hidden in the monastery's closet only serve as facets of the mirror he's using to shed light on his own life. And as he nears a decision, the novel buckles a little. Joseph is going to turn, but which way? There's a reach here that doesn't seem quite earned in light of Joseph's genuine confusion.

Wilkes is on to something with this novel. The ideas strike a chord. Getting and spending rule the day; the world is too much with us. The novel's premise may bully its pace a bit, but Joseph's quest here, as a soul in need of greater solace, is motivated by real need, a sense of the missing piece.

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