Talking authors blab away their best tales over drinks when they should be alone in their workrooms connecting plot lines. Sterner sorts in the craft get all their stuff on paper and off to the publisher before even their closest friends know what they have been pecking away at for so long.
James Carroll is one of the latter enviable breed. Why enviable? Because his new 615-page novel, Mortal Friends, has been given a 90,000-copy first printing, was picked by the Book-of-the-Month Club for $200,000, bought by Dell paperbacks for $900,000 and optioned to the movies for almost certain sale at a dazzling price.
But before any of these rewards befell the 34-year-old Carroll, he too turned talking author for a day and poured out a four-hour summation of his story of politicians and priests, Irish guilt and gunplay. His listener was Alexandra Marshall (author of the novel Gus in Bronze). Carroll had originally been introduced to her by the literary agent they share, an Episcopal minister who married them in 1977.
As the newlyweds drove from Boston for a weekend in New York, Carroll described his novel, which begins with his protagonist killing a British major in County Tipperary in the ’20s. Four decades later, when the Irishman’s lawyer son was being murdered by Boston hoods because of the gang-busting politics of the ascendant Kennedy family, the Carrolls were crossing into Manhattan.
Along the way—Sturbridge, New Haven, Larchmont—Alexandra Carroll heard of gangland massacres, Vatican bribings, anti-Catholicism at Harvard and unsanctified sex. When the story was over, she was silent. Finally the exhausted author thought some kind of reaction was at least a beat overdue and asked loudly, “Well, Lexa, what do you think?”
Then she asked, “Jim, how do you know so much about evil?”
A lot was probably picked up in confessionals. From 1969 to 1974 Carroll was a Catholic priest on chaplain duty at Boston University. Between absolutions there he wrote five books of religious poems and meditations. “My mom is named Mary,” he wrote in The Winter Name of God. “Her mother’s name was Ann. My dad’s name is Joseph. My initials are J.C.—I take myself very seriously.”
During the Vietnam war’s worst days Carroll was among the clerics jailed for demonstrating outside the Pentagon. Inside it was his father, Air Force Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll, a former lawyer and FBI agent. At the time he headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. Jim’s devout Irish-Catholic parents were living at Boiling Air Force Base outside Washington. Sometimes, after demonstrations, he would join his brother, a conscientious objector, for dinner with the family. The table conversation was very careful. “My father had a professional commitment never to come home and talk about business,” Carroll recalls. The prodigal sons held their tongues too, to keep their mother from tears while they coped with her intuitions. “You were in Washington a few weeks ago, weren’t you, Jim?”
“I had been, of course,” Carroll says. “The great crime wasn’t that I had been in jail there, but that I hadn’t called home.”
When Jim was a college boy working summers in an FBI lab, he wanted to be a pilot in his dad’s Air Force. Age and events ended that ambition. “I probably would never have been involved in the antiwar movement at all if I hadn’t become a priest,” he says. “By becoming the priest my parents wanted me to be, I found myself cut off from their world.”
When he also found himself standing against the church more often than with it, Carroll decided he wanted to be a dedicated writer instead of a doubting priest. In 1976 he published his first thriller, Madonna Red, which has been bought by Robert Redford’s production company. The New York Times called Carroll “a skillful writer who knows every trick of the genre.”
Long before he met Alexandra, Carroll had decided he did not wish to remain celibate. When he was ordained he took a vow of poverty too, but that did not worry him until recently. “Having a lot of money,” he says, “is now one of the things I am going to have to learn to deal with.” It’s been dealt with before by other young Irish ex-priest writers. They’ve found poverty even easier to forgo than chastity.