Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 400 pp.
James Carroll is nothing if not ambitious as a writer, and in Practicing Catholic he has given us at least three books for the price of one. That is an attractive offer during a miserable recession. But it is not the bargain it seems.
If the three books in question were available separately, one of them would definitely be worth the effort. A good part of Practicing Catholic is a memoir of Carroll’s own Irish-Catholic upbringing, his formation and five years as a Paulist priest starting in the late 1960s, and the aftermath of his decision to leave the priesthood in 1974. Carroll has written about his life in the Vietnam era before (in the National Book Award-winning An American Requiem), and he has great material to work with. A seminarian in the immediate wake of Vatican II, a peace activist, and a campus minister involved in war resistance, Carroll experienced the turmoil in the church and in the country from the front row. These remain his formative years, and even his passionate, over-the-top pages about reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” are a reminder of the liberating, highly emotional excitement that still shapes Carroll’s identity and expectations.