Bring a map when traveling in this city

City of God E.L. Doctorow Random House 320 pp., $25

E.L. Doctorow's new novel, "City of God," is easier to read than St. Augustine's 5th-century theological tract with the same title. Augustine wrote in Latin.

Considering the way "Ragtime" jazzed readers in 1975, movie fans in 1981, and finally theatergoers in 1998, this is painful news to convey. If "City of God" were published posthumously, we could consider it a provocative collection of notes discovered in the author's desk. We could mourn that he hadn't survived to finish it. As it is, I feel grateful to have survived it myself.

There's plenty of good storytelling and profound contemplation here, but all of it labors under the novel's confusing structure - sure to be labeled "brilliant" by professors who dismiss "readability" as a petty demand of the masses.

At the center of this jumble of songs, sermons, interviews, musings, ornithology, movie sketches, physics lectures, and history, is the engaging story of a radical Episcopal priest in New York City.

The Rev. Thomas Pemberton presides over a rundown church and his own dilapidated faith. Pem, as his friends call him, is stretched on the rack of his own doubts, yet still pierced by his love for God. The '60s have left him with a ponytail and a devotion to community action, but no one's paying any attention, except a kindly bishop who finds Pem's liberal theology almost heretical.

When thieves steal the large brass crucifix from St. Timothy's, the police don't give Pem much hope of recovering it. A story decrying the crime appears in the Times, and a few well-meaning donations arrive, but then a rabbi calls with an intriguing message: Someone has left his crucifix on the roof of the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism.

Was this meant as an act of desecration? By anti-Semites who want the synagogue out? By Orthodox Jews who reject reform theology? The rabbi and his wife are understandably alarmed, but Pem dons his "divine detective" cap and begins to see this act in terms of what it might mean for him. The wandering crucifix forces him to transcend the divisions of theology and see a deeper principle of God beneath the competing stories, myths, and dogmas.

Laced among the snippets of this story are stunning episodes about a boy in the Kovno ghetto during World War II. He survives the Nazi death camp by assuming the identities of other Jewish boys who have been murdered. And he bravely helps a Jewish doctor ferret a diary of their horrors to a Catholic priest outside the camp walls - a nice reversal of the crucifix finding sanctuary in the synagogue. In tightly focused scenes of brutality and kindness, Doctorow conveys a panoramic impression of the Holocaust that's incredibly moving.

Other threads of the novel include a thrilling prose poem about an American bomber, the terrifying memories of a Vietnam vet, the mind-bending musing of a cosmologist, and a cheesy movie plot about a diabolical impostor. But why must we work so hard to extract these treasures from this jumble? "City of God" is like a great hardware store: All the elements of a beautiful house are here, but we want someone to put them together for us.

I can hear Pem chuckling at my whiny complaint. His friend Everett - the closest thing to a narrator in this book - thinks, "I am only fascinated by the power of this hodgepodge of chronicles, verses, songs, relationships, laws of the universe, sins, and days of reckonings ... this scissors-and-paste job that is in its original form so terse, inconsistent, and defiant of common sense, and cryptically inattentive to the ordinary demands of narrative as to be attributed to a divine author."

But he's talking about the Bible. "The City of God" will require its own midrash.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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