'High Flyer': Good is better than evil

July 02, 2000|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

"The High Flyer," by Susan Howatch. Knopf. 512 pages. $26.

Susan Howatch has high hopes. She would like to save your soul, for one. She would like you to run to church, drop to your knees and beg for forgiveness.

But that makes for a very short book. So she couches her message -- forgive me, Message -- in a 512-page morality tale. This isn't a novel. It's the longest sermon on record.

Our heroine is Carter Graham, a hard-charging, highly successful London lawyer whose life is so structured she speculates whether her dates will be fertile enough to impregnate her when the Daily Career Planner says it's time to start a family. She's also -- big hint coming -- a committed athiest.

She beds, then marries, Kim Betz, another hard-charging, highly successful London lawyer with a bit of a past, including a crazy ex-wife, a Nazi father and a dominating psychic healer named Mrs. Mayfield who has lured him into the occult and group sex. Boy, won't Carter be surprised when she learns all that?

The plot is pure ham-handed silliness -- mysterious phone calls, chance meetings, stalkers and conspiracies, last-second rescues. Each section ends with a rim-shot flourish straight out of the Hardy Boys -- "I checked the tape. It had been wiped." Cue the organ music.

On the few occasions Howatch attempts to wax poetic, we get something like this color-blind description of London: "I saw it as a dense, man-made jungle knifed by skyscrapers which reflected the powerful rays of the setting sun as if they were shards of mirrored glass rising from a dung-heap."

Or something.

The narrative doesn't matter; it's just prelude. The point is to make poor Carter suffer horribly and dispatch her by whatever means necessary -- in this case, a ghost -- into the warm and waiting arms of the church.

As she sprints for help, Carter feels the presence of an invisible companion, and the "darkness parted before him." Who could this possibly be? I half-expected Dana Carvey to make a cameo appearance as the Church Lady, only this time saying, "I don't know ... could it be ... JEE-ZUS?"

For the rest of the book, wobegone Carter ping-pongs among priests, physicians and psychiatrists, all nudging her ever closer toward the light. These characters don't hold conversations, they deliver speeches, thus allowing Howatch to demonstrate she has done her theology studies.

There's talk about poltergeists and the occult and the Principalities and Powers and logical positivism and exorcists. The result is as enjoyable as reading someone else's homework, so here's the Cliff's Notes version: 1) Good is better than evil. 2) We all need to heal.

Let's give Howatch credit for tackling matters of faith and spirituality. "The High Flyer" is the latest in a line of ecclesiastical romance novels Howatch has written since embracing Anglicanism several years ago. Her series of novels about the fictional town of Starbridge has been likened to Trollope's "Barchester Chronicles."

In this case, it's not her message that's so disagreeable, it's her vessel. This book reads like Jacqueline Susann as rewritten by Tammy Faye Bakker. Hallmark cards contain sentiment that is more hard-earned. Only divine intervention could make this tale credible.

Howatch has written 19 novels. Many have sold quite well. She apparently has legions of devoted fans. That only proves this: There is a God, and He has a remarkable sense of humor.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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