City of God

E. L. Doctorow, Author Random House Inc $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-679-44783-2
New York at the end of the 20th century--hardly St. Augustine's city of God--is the canvas on which Doctorow paints an impressionistic portrait of man's frail moral nature and the possibilities of redemption. Challenging and provocative, this rambling narrative is a mix of alternating voices that touch on such matters as theology, popular music, astronomy, physics and science, war, carnal love, the verisimilitude of film to life (and distortions thereof). The story is at first difficult to discern, because the abruptly changing voices are not identified. But the episodic selections prove to be passages in a notebook kept by a writer called Everett, who is searching for inspiration for a novel. The easiest thread to follow, since it ties together and finally illuminates the other voices, is Everett's interest in a mysterious theft. In the fall of 1999, the brass cross from the altar of an Episcopal church in the East Village is stolen--and later discovered on the roof of an alternative synogogue on the Upper West Side. Fr. Thomas Pemberton, the spiritually restless rector of St. Timothy's, finds a kindred soul in iconoclastic Rabbi Joshua Gruen, the leader of the Evolutionary Judaism congregation. Together they probe the validity of religion in a century that has fostered epic barbarism and bloodshed. In fugal counterpoint to their conversations, the rabbi's wife, Sarah Blumenthal, herself a rabbi, discloses the story of her father's ordeals during the Holocaust, in which he tells of a manuscript hidden in the ghetto. Ensuing events cause a gentle, grieving Sarah and an unmoored Pem, whose chronic despair, intellectual arrogance and religious skepticism have cost him his pulpit, to draw together in need and understanding. This is merely the scaffolding of a story that ranges from stark tragedy to absurdist comedy, that includes quotations from popular songs from the first three decades of this century as well as speculations on infinity, a scenario for a sadistic love affair, the observations of a bird watcher, a free verse account of a WWII air battle, a consideration of the scientific discoveries that unleashed methodical human extermination and marvelous progress, minibios of Albert Einstein and Frank Sinatra, and the tenets of Christian and Jewish liturgy. Despite the fractured structure, suspense intensifies as the various segments intersect. Doctorow's language is both lyric and bracing, a mix of elegant, precise wordplay and brash vernacular. In a masterwork of characterization, he depicts a gallery of characters (including, hilariously, a retired New York Times editor who becomes an avenging angel) with vivid economy. At once audacious and assured, this profound existential inquiry will surely be ranked as a brilliant mirror of our life and times. 7-city author tour. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
Paperback - 308 pages - 978-0-349-11352-4
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-7927-2403-2
Hardcover - 514 pages - 978-0-7862-2681-8
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-452-28209-4
Paperback - 514 pages - 978-0-7862-2684-9
Analog Audio Cassette - 4 pages - 978-0-375-40816-8
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-0-8129-8589-4
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