cover image Temptations


Paul Wilkes. Random House (NY), $20 (252pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57585-8

In his first novel, Wilkes, a prolific nonfiction writer who specializes in religion ( In Mysterious Ways ), traces a year in the life of a Manhattan writer who, despite his concerted efforts, cannot turn his back on God. Joseph, who narrates the story in a month-by-month diary, enjoys his West Village co-op and other measures of success he has earned through his bestselling biographies. But he begins to question his lifestyle the day he realizes that he has slept with four different women in seven nights. Raised a Catholic, he decides to spend some time at a Trappist monastery in Vermont, telling himself and Father Columban, his mentor there, that he's researching an article. Joseph experiences both bliss and bitterness in his spiritual quest, and faces challenges, raised by Columban, about his real intentions. He also meets Margery, a woman he believes he could marry, and is drawn into the mystery of a young man's suicide on monastery grounds, leading him to others outside the monastery walls whose religious fervor is fueled by insanity or deep hatred. Against four seasons of powerfully evoked rural Vermont scenery, Wilkes follows Joseph's inner journey and the story of the suicide, which come together at the conclusion. Wilkes's characters are somewhat overdrawn and stereotyped, and the plot is rather predictable. Indeed, the drama of Joseph 's interior search would have been enough to carry the narrative. But Wilkes doesn't flinch from the hard questions of spirituality in the modern world, and his gracefully written novel leaves its mark on the reader's mind. (Feb.)