Asking Christopher Buckley to review a memoir of a Christ-haunted ex-Catholic who falls back into the arms of the Church is lik e inviting your diabetic friend to a dessert bar. What did you think of the banana pudding? Was it worth the coma? But that’s exactly what the New York Times did last year when they handed him Anne Rice’s spiritual autobiography, Called Out of Darkness . Buckley, famous agnostic son of America’s most famous Catholic intellectual, proclaimed it “the literary equivalent of waterboarding” and wrote that “Confessional (and profess-ional) literature is like faith itself: to believers, the poem of perfect lucidity and logic; to the unconvinced (in whose camp I squat, nervously clutching Christopher Hitchen’s pant leg) it can sound a little, well, fruity.”

I had heard about the Buckley review, but I didn’t look at Rice’s memoir until after I’d read her forthcoming novel, Angel Time . Angel Time sounds like”and to some extent is”a dramatic departure from the Vampire Chronicles that brought Rice so much success, beginning with Interview With the Vampire in 1976, continuing through works like The Vampire Lestat and Memnoch the Devil and concluding with Blood Canticle in 2003. The quality of her work has wavered (a common problem for prolific novelist, and I should have such problems), but at her best, Rice evokes the ornate emotional atmosphere of her Romantic predecessors. Rice’s stories belong to Europe and to the Catholic South”especially to New Orleans, that most European of American cities. Her heroes are eloquent and tragic outcasts from human life, condemned to love darkness and to hunt for blood, to remember human love but spend eternity without it.

Though the hero of Angel Time is another loner, Rice has lightened her literary canvas somewhat for this new novel. Gone are the lavish backstories and omnisexual overtones that gave the Chronicles a Gothic feel. The novel opens in recent times with a cool assassin who goes by the nickname “Lucky the Fox.” Lucky has a mysterious boss that he knows only as “the Right Man.” Is the Right Man a criminal mastermind or “one of the good guys” as he claims? Mafioso or CIA? It doesn’t matter to Lucky. He dispatches his victims with little remorse, saving his sentimental side for ruminations on his own lost Catholic faith and blighted childhood. The one constant in Lucky’s life now is a place called “the Mission Inn,” where he goes undisguised to rest and remember things past. With its ecclesiastical architecture, the Inn connects him to the youthful faith that still haunts him. “Mind you,” he says, “I was certainly not the only hit man on this planet who went to Mass. But I was one of a very small minority who paid attention.”

Lucky is a history buff, and it’s obvious early on that his story is key to his mystery: why he kills, why he prays to a God he no longer believes in. But nothing comes clear until the Right Man sends him to the Mission Inn”the scene of his deepest religious struggles”to assassinate a stranger. Lucky follows orders, but on the way, he thoughtlessly prays what he calls “the dumbest prayer of my repertoire . . . the one that made me the angriest.” Angel of God, my guardian dear . . . ever this day be at my side. And as in so many supernatural tales, whether the source is the Bible, Homer, or Frank Capra, the one who asks will receive. An angel named Malchiah answers Lucky’s call, appearing as a handsome young man with “an infinite knowledge and an unaccountable acceptance of who and what I was.” Lucky doubts at first, and then runs, but Malchiah pursues, and proves his heavenly origins by telling Lucky his own life story from the perspective of divine and redeeming love. I won’t give too much of that story away, but it’s Lucky’s history that forms the emotional core of the book and also connects this novel to Rice’s other tales of lost children and tragic outsiders.

Some writers have one story that they tell again and again in different ways, and often that story is autobiography. Charles Dickens liked to write about deserving young men who fall on hard times and then, through the help of benevolent friends, recover a birthright; this was Dickens’s own life, retold as David Copperfield , Oliver Twist , or Nicholas Nickelby . In the case of Anne Rice, it’s no accident that two of her most significant characters”Louis of Interview with the Vampire (probably her best book), and now Lucky the Fox”begin as innocent children in devout Catholic families, lose beloved family members through cruel accidents and alcoholism, and at last feel themselves ripped from their old lives by dark forces that turn them into creatures of darkness”whether vampires or assassins.

This is Rice’s life. Like Louis’ brother and Lucky’s mother, her own mother died tragically at a young age. Anne was a teenager then, still a very devout Catholic, even dreaming of the priesthood (her outlook, like her birth name, Harold Allen, was androgynous). But faith melted away as she grew older and became curious about the intellectual, cultural, and sexual world outside the Church. Rice eventually came to see Christianity as beautiful but repressive and God as a fiction. She married a scholar, lost a young daughter to leukemia a few years later, and out of her own darkness produced dark stories about beautiful, brooding creatures who wrestle with questions of immortality and faith. Still obsessed with religious art and symbols, she yearned for the thing she couldn’t accept.

For the vampires of the Chronicles , there is no happy ending, just long life and unsatisfied longing. It’s significant that the figure on the cover of Rice’s last novel, Blood Canticle , is the Sybil of Cumae, a prophetess who was granted the wish to live for a thousand years but forgot to ask for the gift of eternal youth. When a man came to visit her and asked, “What do you wish?” she replied, “I wish to die.”

Rice could easily have spent the rest of her life as a religion-besotted atheist, silently wishing for something she’d set aside in youth. Instead she chose what Christopher might think of as the fruity option and embraced the thing she longed for. After thirty-five years outside the Church, she announced publicly that she’d stepped back in. And that decision had career consequences: Having wrapped up the lucrative Chronicles , she produced a two-part life of Jesus, the result of her newfound passion for biblical scholarship. Now, in another questionable career move, she offers the world this different sort of novel about the supernatural, advertised by Knopf (with fingers tightly crossed, I’ll bet) as a return to the “mesmerizing storytelling that has captivated readers for than three decades.”

But will it work? Will fans of the Chronicles (or even new fans) embrace a novel about a lost soul redeemed instead of a wounded soul damned”a novel that tries to look at the world from the point of view of heaven itself? Putting questions of popularity aside, this is an immense artistic challenge that Rice takes on here. Even the greatest writers struggle to describe human goodness, and very few (William Blake, Charles Williams) can speak of heavenly things without giving their audience the church giggles. There’s just something about an aura of divine love that stunts the human vocabulary. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Angel Time succeeds as a work of popular fiction, but in the end it may not matter.

Lucky’s healing comes in the second part of his story, when Malchiah takes him on a miraculous trip through time to thirteenth-century England, where Jews were often suspected of kidnapping and killing Christian children. Fulfilling his childhood wish to be a priest, “Brother Toby” intercedes to save a Jewish family from persecution. He also helps heal the outrage caused by the conversion of a Jewish girl to Christianity and finds something to praise in both religions.

I think that Anne Rice feels a similar calling. Having lived many years in self-imposed exile from the Church, she’s tried in the last decade to put her skill and fame to work in reuniting divided Christians around the essentials of the faith: the meaning of Christ’s life as a Jewish teacher and the significance of his death and resurrection for the Church. Her biographies of Jesus were the heavenly work that called her away from the making and selling of bestsellers. With Lucky’s story, she tells us that serving God is more satisfying than serving the Right Man”or the right critics, or even the right readers. Sneer if you want, but it’s hard not to envy her.

Betty Smartt Carter is the author of two novels, including I Read It in the Wordless Book, and a memoir , Home Is Always the Place You Just Left.

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