At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.
Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.
As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.
What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.
Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.
The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.