THE PARDONER'S TALE
by John Wain
Viking; 314 pages; $10.95
The Pardoner of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is that ecclesiastic scamp who sells indulgences and moonlights pig bones and rags as holy relics. Giles Hermitage, 50, the self-revealing hero of John Wain's new novel, also traffics in illusions. He is a writer whose books, like those of Wain himself, "were civilized and responsible, neither condescending to nor affronting the reader, and commanded a small but not fickle public."
One fan is Helen Chichester-Redfern, a terminal cancer patient who lives in the same English cathedral town as Hermitage. A deathbed friendship is struck, along with a...