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A Hood Finds God Down Mexico Way

January 08, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marcel Montecino's "Sacred Heart" (Pocket Books, 376 pages, $23) follows the improbable adventures of "Tommy Gun" Coyne, an up-and-coming hood in New York City during Prohibition. When he and his gang are set up by a crooked cop, Coyne is the only one who survives the shootout. To escape a police dragnet, he robs a priest, dons the robes and sets out for Mexico, where he plans to hide out with his brother Frank, a Jesuit missionary.

But unbeknownst to Tommy Gun, the Mexican government has begun a crackdown on the church, secularizing schools, expelling practitioners and seizing church property.

True believers answer with the short-lived but bloody Cristero rebellion, a historic event that the novel introduces with some dramatic overstatement. In Montecino's retelling, events soon conspire to make Coyne the leader of the nascent revolution, fighting for a God he long has disdained in a country he doesn't know, beside a beautiful but disfigured nun he . . . well, you get the picture.

In the book's second half, the ruthless Coyne undergoes a miraculous--dare we say divine?--transformation, making this a story of rebirth and resurrection--but with lots of sex and gunplay. In other words, it's a Hollywood movie waiting to happen. Indeed, the book is written more like a screenplay than a novel, with brief scenes stacked atop one another without so much as the pretense of a transition between them.

Following the plot sometimes requires acrobatic leaps of faith, and Coyne inexplicably survives so many showdowns with death that it's easy to see why the Mexican peasants accept him as an avenging archangel. In lesser hands, these flaws would be fatal. But in the hands of a master writer like Montecino, they become almost incidental.

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