Fine Blend: suspense, decency; The Clowns of God, by Morris West. New York: William Morrow & Co. $14.95

Hollywood loved Morris West's best-selling novel "The Shoes of the Fisherman." As a 50-year-old veteran of Soviet labor camps, Anthony Quinn was a marvelously gutsy Ukrainian Pope. When he took on arch nemesis Kamenev in an effort to avert an impending nuclear war between Moscow and Washington, the miters and sickles flew.

One wonders what Hollywood would do with West's latest novel of papal intrigue, "The Clowns of God." This time his pope is a 65-year-old Frenchman who's also facing the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Would the movie moguls turn to Louis Jordan? Omar Sharif?

Whoever gets the part will need to study well, for Gregory XVII is no ordinary Pope. In fact, as the story opens he's about to become a former Pope. He signs the instruments of abdication in the presence of the cardinals of the Sacred College and wishes them well in their search for a good man to wear the Fisherman's ring. "God knows you will need him!" he chides.

Jean Marie Barette, lately Pope, has been forced into abdication because the cardinals don't know how else to cope with his apocalyptic vision of the approaching end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. What follows, as he sets off on a lonely pilgrimage to find a way to proclaim his vision without sending his cherished world into a tailspin of chaos and hysteria , makes for a novel that is a journey in its own right: There are dramatic peaks , subtle valleys, and a few pretentious cliffs.

At his best, author West is a skillful storyteller who knows how to build suspense into every twist of the plot. Will Jean Marie's closest friend, former Jesuit scholar Carl Mendelius, believe him? And what role will the CIA's nasty agent-in-place play?

The most perplexing question may well be how anyone who knows Jean Marie could mistrust him or wish him evil. West's novel is remarkable among much of today's fiction for its decent, well-meaning characters, and the relationship he builds among them are at the heart of this work.

In one touching scene, Mendelius's college-age son confesses that he's no longer a believer. "I'm sorry to hear it, son," his father replies. "But I'm glad you told me." No one, his father continues, can dictate another's conscience, adding, "But remember one thing, son. Keep your mind open, so that the light can always come in. Keep your heart open so that love will never be shut out."

In intimate, realistic conversations like these, West can talk of love and faith and hope without sounding mawkish. But when his characters launch into soulful interior dialogues with themselves -- or with the world -- one has the uncomfortable feeling that he's reaching too far and is about to lose his grip on believability.

West has great faith in the power of faith, but little tolerance for the bureaucratic wranglings that often seem to accompany organized religion. In a day when the tradition churches are losing clergy and congregations while the cults continue to flourish, his moral examinations of church hierarchy strike a timely note.

Readers may not agree with West on many of the theological points he puts forth, especially his resolution of a coming final judgment. But at a tme when millenarianism appears to be making a comeback, most recently in public congressional testimony by US Secretary of the Interior James Watt ("I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord comes"), West is at least raising thought-provoking issues.

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