Our book today is Elizabeth Knox's 1998 novel The Vintner's Luck about Sobran Jodeau, a half-drunk young vintner in 19th century Burgundy who stumbles along a country path one night and encounters an angel taking in the night air. The two begin talking, and shortly they arrive at an arrangement: they will meet once a year on that night, share some wine, and talk.
The novel that Knox spins from such almost disappointingly cliche underpinnings is fast and powerful and unexpectedly sensuous and entirely wonderful. This is no sappy angel-book; this particular Heavenly creature, though beautiful and at times oddly innocent, is both winterishly alien and deeply passionate, and Sobran himself is no doe-eye pious pilgrim but a full-blooded chance-taker who's certainly not incapable of being a jerk to those he loves. And Sobran is naturally curious about this strange being to whom he has annual access - a curiosity initially aroused by the many ways the angel's reality collides with Sobran's preconceived Sunday School ideas of what angels are and do, as when he learns that 'his' angel likes to collect roses:
"You're a botanist?" Sobran gazed at the angel in amazement. A collection of roses seemed such an ordinary thing, like the passion of a country priest. "Aren't all flowers to be found in Heaven?"
"Everyone's a theologian," the angel said, droll. Then: "All things thrive in Heaven, so are unlike their earthly selves. Anyone who hoped to grow earthly roses in Heaven would be obliged to keep fetching fresh specimens." The angel touched the young man's face, where ice had gnawed the flesh. His touch was firm, like a physicians, and his fingertips were evenly upholstered by resilient calluses, like the pads on a cat's paw. The angel was thoughtful. "When are you truest, a perfect Sobran Jodeau? Is every scar or sign of age a departure? How would I recognize you, thriving in Heaven?" He withdrew his hand.
"Tell me your name."
"Why? I'm the only angel you're likely to meet in your lifetime. In your thoughts 'my angel'."
"Is it a secret?"
"No. My name is Xas. Like spit and vinegar - sass. X-a-s. I'm of the lowest of the nine orders. Unmentioned in Scripture or Apocrypha."
Knox's writing is by turns meticulously detailed and quietly lyrical, and she never shies away from the obvious homoerotic undertones implicit in her recurring tableau. When Sobran learns that Xas also spends time conversing with another human, a woman in Damascus, he's nettled and not a little jealous:
Sobran looked away from Xas. He put out his hand to crush a black cricket - only to hear, once its voice was silenced, how many there were, singing among his vines. "I hadn't imagined that you were so incautious or full of talk."
"You think I confine myself to collecting roses and one friend a century - the sad disciplines of a domesticated immortal?"
"I imagined you spent the balance of your time with other immortals."
Xas made a soft noise of affirmation, then said, "I'm at my leisure. With my time, what would you do?"
"I'd do good," Sobran said.
The angel was silent for a moment, then asked, "Haven't I done you good?"
The blood rushing to Sobran's head seemed to close a valve in the top of his skull; it shut out a coldness. He moved closer to the angel and, without looking into Xas's face, put a hand on his bare forearm. "Forgive me. I'm only jealous."
Sobran moved his grip and took Xas's hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed. "You're my beloved friend," he said.
This abrupt submission appeared to trouble the angel. He removed his hand from Sobran's and thanked him - then, putting things back on a firmer footing, asked, as usual, for the news.
The story follows Sobran's life through its loves and losses, through the prosperity and vicissitudes of the vineyard and the unfolding century, almost always faithfully punctuated by his annual visits with the angel - until, that is, the angel, tempted by the immediacy of mortality, undergoes some changes of his own. Even so, the story's end finds a very old and very sick Sobran once again in the company of his angel, not knowing how much of a farewell death represents to such a strange pair of friends:
He closed his eyes. The bones in his neck were wax, melting, his head settled like a flower on a withered stalk, his throat began to occlude itself, never mind the thick liquids that crept up it from his lungs. He felt a hand on his mouth. They made a mirror, hand to mouth, and for a moment weren't anywhere particular in their lives, but were together.
Sobran roused himself one last time. He was exhausted, but love was never finished, it had its rights, it had the right of prophecy. He said, "I'll see you on the day beyond days." For a long second, like the shock of falling, he waited for the answer he deserved, the aspiration of "yes" on his fingertips.
The Vintner's Luck has never been widely available - you won't find it piled yea-high in the back shelves of your local giant retail mega-store. But it's an intense and odd novel that repays re-reading (I bought my first copy in 1999 in just such a mega-store in downtown Boston and found my second, reminding copy on a rainy night at the Strand in Manhattan), and it's worth tracking down. Because it's ultimately about the unaccountability of love, and so it will fascinate anybody who's ever been brave enough to risk that very thing.