April 13, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT


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In Season
Travie McCoy

Morris West was a prophet nearly 27 years ago when he foretold the coming of a Soviet-bloc Pope in The Shoes of the Fisherman. That mega-seller, first of a trilogy, was followed 20 years later by The Clowns of God, an apocalyptic novel of papal intrigue. In Lazarus, West gives us a third vision of papal authority and completes the set.

Lazarus is a thriller about those who wield power, yield to it, or need to be shielded from it. The Lazarus figure here is a Pope, the imaginary Leo XIV, who stands in the papal shoes and slams shut the last of the church windows that Vatican II opened in 1962. His harsh reign lays ”waste the city of God” — until his heart (what else?) gives out.

A surgeon saves his life. Bypass surgery, while physically routine, also causes a deep mental change. That poses the book’s central questions: Recovered, will Leo undertake, as he hopes, to encourage open discussion of church finances, women priests, married clergy, and sexual practices; and restore Vatican II’s demand for ”authentic freedom”? If he does, will the iron-willed legalists he has appointed let him?

Who cares? Well, the reader does. West is a storyteller. Anyone’s longings for liberty and equity may stir in answer to the struggles of Leo, the repentant tyrant. He is the archetypical patriarch, the biggest boss. It is our pleasure to see him live to regret that and sweat to undo his injustices.

Subplots augment the pleasure and suspense. Leo’s friend Cardinal Drexel cherishes life on a farm he runs as a home/schhol for handicapped children. One child is Britte, daughter of a Danish doctor who is Leo’s postoperative counselor and also the lover of Leo’s surgeon, an Italian Jew of fierce integrity.

The surgeon’s clinic houses covert Israeli agents. When a group called Sword of Islam tries to kill the stricken Pope, the agents fend them off. While Leo recovers and plans his reforms, they protect him. When, in reprisal for the abduction of an Arab agent, Britte and her mother get death threats, they protect them too. When their brave, wily leader leaves for Israel, danger mounts.

By then Leo has decided how he will change the papal ”trigger words: hierarchy and obedience” to a ”saving word” of love. He calls a Consistory to announce his plans. The death threats continue.

Lazarus is all action, really, despite the rich implications of its sociopolitical and religious frame. Little local atmosphere impedes the transnational plot. Most of the characters call somewhere else home. Only the farm is a memorable place, an Italian Eden.

West’s solutions to the big questions are Edenic too: Work the soil. Love thy neighbor. Talk openly. Listen. And, do unto others as you would have them do unto you (presumably with their consent).

The world’s bad guys will not therefore evaporate, nor the rule of unruly power collapse. But we who survive among the power circuits can enjoy imagining the respite such counsel would, if practiced, afford. B+

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